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Column Fri Aug 29 2014

The November Man, Frank, As Above/So Below, Love Is Strange, Life of Crime, Bound By Flesh, To Be Takei & Me and You

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The November Man


I never discuss a film's marketing strategy in my reviews, but I will admit as I was walking into the theater yesterday to check out the new Pierce Brosnan espionage-themed action-thriller The November Man, I happened to glance at the poster by the entrance and saw the tagline "A Spy is Never Out of the Game," and I couldn't help but cringe. Sure, Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a former CIA agent secretly pulled out of retirement to assist with a mission he has a personal stake in, so the tagline makes sense. But of course, what the marketing geniuses are doing is playing with audience's familiarity with Brosnan's most famous film character, James Bond (for you kids out there, he was the super-spy just before Daniel Craig), whom the actor hasn't played in 12 years.

Upon further examination of the poster, I noticed actress Olga Kurylenko in an micro-minidress, bringing to mind her role in the Bond film Quantum of Solace. And if you really want to get specific, The November Man also features a supporting role by Will Patton, bringing to mind one of my favorite American films set in the intelligence-gathering community, No Way Out, in which he starred. I didn't realize at the time that that film's director, Roger Donaldson (who also did The Bank Job and Thirteen Days), also directed this newest film. But in a strange way, it all works, despite the film relying on a few tried-and-true spy-movie tricks, thanks to Brosnan tearing down the romantic spy mystique and giving us a rather appalling character who has buried his emotions so deep that he doesn't allow himself any personal connections, or so he'd have you think.

Devereaux's latest mission is to extract a valuable informant who has information that can take down Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), a Russian politician who will likely be the next leader of that troubled nation. The information has something to do with his activities during the Serbian War, which included holding captive as sex slaves many underage girls. Many of these girls (the ones who survived the war) ended up in the care of social worker Alice (Kurylenko), who apparently has ties to one former victim who has information that could damage many careers and lives in Russia and America. What begins as a secret extraction turns into Devereaux protecting Alice from being found and killed for her connection to this missing woman, making him a target as well of the very people he once worked with, including former agent in training David Mason (Luke Bracey, the Australian actor who played Cobra Commander in the last G.I. Joe movie).

What separates The November Man (based on the book There Are No Spies by Bill Granger, and adapted by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek) from many run-of-the-mill spy stories are the details. There's nothing especially slick about any of the spy procedures, means of locating people, or taking them out either by capturing or killing them. Every operation is carried out in a methodical manner, and there is always a back-up plan when something fails, and things seem to fail as often as they work. I'm not sure I'd attach the label "authentic" to the mission we see here, but they are certainly less superhero-ish than the Bond films.

One of the best and most complicated character in the film is that of Devereaux's former friend and colleague Hanley (played by the great character actor Bill Smitrovich), who has a complicated role that I won't ruin for anyone, but it requires him to wear many faces, and he pulls it off rather nicely. Probably the most fun I had during this film was watching Amila Terzimehic, a former champion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in rhythmic gymnastics, play the stone-cold assassin Alexa, employed by Federov to find and kill Alice. There's a sequence in which Alexa is warming up to head out on a job that requires her to do a few unreal stretches, and you won't soon forget it.

I'll give The November Man credit for attempting something that feels like it takes place in the modern world of international espionage, and confusing those in charge and the public can sometimes be just as effective as lying or making something up. There's a boatload of cynicism at work among these characters, and at times it feels like they're trying to out-hard luck each other with their stories of broken hearts that led to them being better agents. And I'll be damned if Brosnan hasn't gone from being arguably the weakest James Bond to one of the coolest cats in the spy game. This is a pretty easy one to have fun with, without feeling like you have to turn your brain off to do so.

Frank

Frank, from director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did), will be many things to many people. It's a wickedly dark comedy that skewers the current music scene but also seems wildly in love with the broader ideas of what music can be. Frank is also a bleak and melancholy story about mental illness and how it can sometimes spark something wonderful before it spirals into something built of pure pain.

The film is also a collection of some truly great actors doing things you've likely never seen them do before, all anchored by the well-meaning but hopelessly misguided hand of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson, recently seen in About Time and Calvary), a truly horrible songwriter and decent keyboardist who joins Frank's band Soronprfbs (good luck pronouncing that) after its original keyboardist attempts suicide. The overwhelming truth about Soronprfbs is that their on-stage performances and music are weirdly good and catchy and would fit right into the landscape of bands ranging from Joy Division (mostly in Frank's singing style) to LCD Soundsystem (more the music style).

The catch, the gimmick, the kink if you will, to Frank (Michael Fassbender) is that he wears an oversized paper mache head over his own, complete with a plug where a microphone cord can go (presumably to a mic inside the mask. Oh, and the mask never comes off, ever. The head is almost identical to one worn by English musician/comedian Christopher Mark Sievey, who performed with The Freshies and worked under the persona Frank Sidebottom. There's no direct correlation as far as I know between Sievey and Fassbender's Frank, but I'm guessing the implication is that this Frank saw Sievey at some point and adopted the look. It honestly doesn't matter, but people seem to like drawing connections.

Fassbender's Frank is more fragile (think Daniel Johnson), a people pleaser on the surface, but always willing to trample over someone's ideas to get to the better song. The band takes up residence in a country home to record a new album, and Jon takes it upon himself to film their various attempts at creating new sounds and writing songs, and then post them on YouTube, where the band gathers a following they aren't aware of for quite some time.

Writers Jon Ronson (based very loosely on his memoir about Sievey) and Peter Starughan have pieced together a collection of personalities that somehow work together even if they largely can't stand each other. Maggie Gyllenhaal is Clara, an angry person who also assigns herself the task of taking care of Frank; Jon's attempts to work with Frank on writing songs infuriates her. Also on hand are French players Baraque (François Civil and Nana (Carla Azar) who also can't stand Jon, mostly because he's talentless; and then there's Don (Scoot McNairy), the man who brings Jon on board and manages the band to an extent. He seems like the most sane of the bunch, until he doesn't.

The conversations between Frank and Jon are as illuminating and they are confusing. Jon thinks he's breaking through to Frank by asking him directly what no one else seems to feel they can. Why the head? Why not write something catchy? And Fassbender's response and overall performance is a minor miracle, how he makes the expressionless Frank come to life as charming and funny one minute, then off his rocker the next. The other impressive aspect of Frank is that Abrahamson shows us the band (all the actors played and sang themselves) at its most cohesive, which immediately leads into it being its most fractured. Jon gets lost in his longtime dream of being a professional musician and is willing to corrupt what makes Frank so creative and interesting just to gain a bit more mainstream popularity.

A part of me believes that the story of this band is unique, while another part believes that it's typical of a band just getting started (minus the guy wearing the fake head). The film builds up as if a trip to SXSW will be the climax, but that's far from true, and where it goes from that experience was completely unexpected, tragic, and eventually kind of magical. Frank is a vast emotional tale told on the smallest of scales, and it speaks to the power of music to bring people together or even start interpersonal wars. I've now seen it a couple of times, and I'm ready to see it again, as it's quickly becoming one of my favorite offerings of the year. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

As Above/So Below

As far as found-footage/faux-doc horror goes, this one isn't bad, if only because most of the truly scary stuff happens in the fascinating real-life catacombs beneath the streets of Paris that house the skeletal remains of millions of dead folks, seemingly waiting to have a horror movie made in their midst. Director John Erick Dowdle (who co-wrote the film with brother Drew; the pair also made Devil, Quarantine and the notorious The Poughkeepsie Tapes) uses the decidedly claustrophobic space to great advantage in building the scares, by taking full advantage of the vast shadows, tunnels leading to nowhere, and a soundscape that will have you peeing in your britches.

As Above/So Below begins in Iran where Scarlett (Perdita Weeks, The Invisible Woman), a young university researcher, is on a quest to continue the work her now-dead father started, to discover a missing artifact that is the key to translating an ancient text that will lead to her a stone that legend says has a degree of power in the world of alchemy. Scarlett soon arrives in Paris where George (Ben Feldman, Cloverfield and "Mad Men"), the only man she knows who can translate the text, is living. Before long, they are hiring a local team of French "explorers" to take them into the off-limits areas of the catacombs to find a mysterious hidden room under the Paris streets.

As Above/So Below really picks up steam when the team is forced to take a passageway that even the guides refuse to enter, simply because the accepted feeling is that it's evil. Some may balk at the idea that nearly everyone on the team has a pin camera on their mining helmet, so not only can multiple angles be achieved, but the lighting is often quite wonderful, unless of course, things need to be dark. I have no idea if this film was actually shot in the catacombs as much as it appears, and honestly, it doesn't matter because the look and feel of these sets/locations is absolutely believable, and it won't take long for audience members to start seeing, smelling, experiencing what this team is.

As the group gets closer to its objective, we begin to realize that we actually don't know what Scarlett hopes she's going to find once she gets wherever "there" is. Because based on all the clues they've decoded to get to this point, it seems she could be accidentally leading them to a gateway to hell. And the way the group exits the miles of tunnel is even cooler and freakier than the way they came in. Things lurk and make terrifying noises and even sometimes chase our heroes through the catacombs.

As Above/So Below has a plotting similar to a National Treasure film — no matter what clues they are given, someone on their team has the necessary education to figure out what the next move is. That combined with the fact that nearly everyone has a damn camera in their helmet makes accepting this story at face value a bit of a leap of faith. Still, this one has something special about it, and I was genuinely creeped out for a good deal of the movie, despite the fact that the leads both fall into that sad and awful horror trope in which a small group of very smart people do very dumb things with an alarming frequency. If you can live with that, you might enjoy this surprising slice of scary movie.

Love Is Strange

As with most films, you can break down the exquisite Love Is Strange into two things: what happens in it, and what it's about. The first is always easier to spell out. After being a couple for nearly 40 years, painter Ben (John Lithgow) and Catholic school choir director George (Alfred Molina) are finally able to get married in New York City, surrounded by their oldest and closest friends and family. It's a lovely affair, followed by a honeymoon, followed by one unexpected trouble after another.

While the two stay strong as a couple, the world around them is not necessarily able to do the same. Because of the public nature of their wedding, George is fired from his job, and the two are unable to afford the mortgage on their Chelsea condo, which they must move out of. With not a lot of money saved up and no immediate prospects for George to work (Ben is retired), their search for a new apartment is stalled and they are forced to separate to stay with friends and family with only one bed each.

The separation is easy on no one, including those the men are staying with, and the film chronicles what each man must endure in order to make this work. Ben is forced to stay with his neice (Marisa Tomei) and her family, including a teenage son who Ben must share a room; George is occupying another planet, that of a younger gay friend who enjoys entertaining and staying up late, something that doesn't please George in any way, but he slowly comes around to the idea of being exposed to younger, more energetic people outside his normal circle.

But the underlying elegance of the film is about this forced separation at the exact time when Ben and George should be living together as an elderly married couple. Understand, the film isn't about marriage equality, although that's certainly a key part of the start of this story. It's about a couple forced apart at the exact moment they have cause for true celebration of union. Director and co-writer (along with Mauricio Zacharias) Ira Sachs (Married Life, Keep the Lights On) has always had a true gift to understatement and having some of his story's key moments happen off camera, leaving his characters (and audience) to deal with the repercussions and often messy aftermath.

Of course, Sachs is aided in telling his deeply emotional journey by two of the greatest character actors working today, who step into these lead roles effortlessly and deliver such well-crafted performances that you almost don't notice just how strong they are. Lithgow, in particular, who often plays such larger-than-life characters, is so timid and frail at times that watching him get flustered almost makes you cry for him. Countered by Molina's take on George as the soothing force in Ben's life, the sensible one, the one who does his best to make things better. And it's clearly killing him that he can't make these annoying circumstances disappear any faster.

Love Is Strange is also about the little things in a relationship — a touch in the kitchen just to let the other know you're there. It's about the unspoken moments between two people that carry so much weight and indicate a closeness that words never could. This is another of Sachs' strengths: knowing when not to make his characters speak when a look or a gesture can do the work far better.

But Sachs knows how to make his audience struggle along with his characters. We enjoy the company of this couple so much that it pains us as well that after they move apart, we only see them together occasionally, rarely even. They talk on the phone or get together for a meal or drink, but it's not the same. Even when they're clearly having fun, there's an undercurrent of sadness. Love Is Strange is a work nearly perfect is every conceivable way, from the acting to the direction to the use of Chopin music (and nothing but) throughout to the way Sachs makes New York see so homey and warm as these fine gentlemen walk its streets. Seek this one out and don't be afraid to let it move you. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Life of Crime

I remember reading much earlier in the year about this film, thought it sounded like a cool story with a great cast, and then I promptly forgot all about it, including the title. So when I sat down recently to watch Life of Crime, adapted by director Daniel Schechter (Supporting Characters), I had no idea that several of the characters I was watching were ones I'd seen before played by other actors. You see, Life of Crime is based on the 1978 novel The Switch, by the late, great Elmore Leonard, telling the early crime adventures of Louis Gara and Ordell Robbie, who would later appear in Leonard's 1992 book Rum Punch, which was turned in to the film Jackie Brown. Played by Robert De Niro and Samuel L. Jackson in that film, Louis and Ordell are shown as younger men portrayed by John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey (better known as the hip-hop artist Mos Def).

Also making an appearance in both films is the character of Melanie, played in Life of Crime by Isla Fisher (and Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown). Of course, I didn't realize any of this until the end credits started rolling on this new film, which is a testament to how strong a stand-alone work it is, with no nods to Tarantino's 1997 movie. In Schechter's film, Louis and Odell are plotting the kidnapping of Mickey Dawson (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of corrupt real estate developer Frank Dawson (Tim Robbins). While the boys think they've covered all the angles, they're still new at the kidnapping game and they haven't figured on such things as Mr. Dawson's young mistress, Melanie, or the fact that just before they took Mickey, Frank had filed for divorce from her, so he's not exactly in a hurry to hand over the requested $1 million for her speedy return.

Life of Crime isn't about the kidnapping; it's about the players in it, from the victim to the kidnappers to the husband; hell, it's even about Richard Monk (Mark Boone Junior), the weird dude with the Nazi memorabilia fetish in whose house the kidnappers store Mickey. As with all Leonard's characters, they are richly drawn, fascinating people who wear their flaws and strange proclivities proudly. I loved that the audience ends up being the smartest player in this game since we are the only ones with all of the information about every character.

As it becomes clear that Frank isn't going to pay, Louis starts to take pity on Mickey (who likely would have welcomed the coming divorce from her overbearing husband) and the three of them begin to concoct a scheme to get back at Frank for all of his poor choices. Despite the occasional bloody moment, Life of Crime has a wonderful breezy, matter-of-fact quality to it that make me take and instant liking to all of the characters.

There's a strange subplot involving a friend of the Dawsons, Marshall (played by Will Forte), who was trying to seduce Mickey right when she got kidnapped and is secretly working (ineffectively) to find out exactly what happened to her. In any other film, I might have wished for this storyline to get cut, but there's something rather endearing about Forte playing amateur sleuth and not able to go to the police for fear word of his attempted affair would ruin his own home life. Everyone in Life of Crime has a secret, and uncovering each and every one of them is the key to this film being so much fun.

Bound By Flesh

At best, the Hilton twins (not to be compared to the still-living Hilton sisters of today) are a footnote in showbiz history. But as if to prove the point that there is no such thing as a boring story, just stories waiting to be told by interesting tellers, filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis (Behind the Burly Q) digs deep into the lives of the conjoined (or Siamese) twins Daisy and Violet, probably best known to cinephiles from their appearance in Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) or possibly their rather terrible 1952 autobiographical feature film Chained for Life. As chronicled in Bound By Flesh, their life was a struggle from birth and not just because they were connected by a bit of tissue at the small of the back.

Born in Britain to an unwed mother who believed the twins' condition was a punishment from God for not being married, Daisy and Violet were put up for display for money before they learned to walk, and were passed from one relative or opportunistic promoter to another. Eventually, to keep the brand fresh, the girls learned to sing, play instruments, dance and be generally personable for the stage, everywhere from sideshows in carnivals to freak shows and eventually landing as part of the vaudeville circuit where they became a top-paid act. They went all over the world, and it didn't hurt that they were attractive.

The research for Bound By Flesh is extraordinary, and Zemeckis and her team come up with some of the most obscure newsreel footage, archival photographs, posters, even audio tape of the girls telling their life story. Supplemented by interviews from historians and even a few former promoters who crossed paths with the twins, the film paints a portrait of a painful life lived by two naïve women who rarely had a clue when they were being bamboozled. Yes, I'll admit the discussions about their sex lives are perhaps the highlight of the film, but it's balanced by the sad story of their lives after show business left them behind.

Zemeckis clearly has an affection for the Hilton girls, but behind that is the idea that we should not forget these hidden corners of show business, if only as a cautionary tale about bad management, overstaying your welcome in the limelight, and existing on that fine line between novelty act and freak show performer. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Director Leslie Zemeckis will be present for audience discussion on Friday, August 29 at the 8:15pm screening, moderated by yours truly.

To Be Takei

Even for those who have some idea of actor/activist George Takei's life — past and present — I'm guessing that there's something in the great new documentary about him, To Be Takei, that you didn't know. But the access the "Star Trek" actor and his husband, Brad, gave to director Jennifer Kroot (It Came from Kuchar) makes even the familiar seem new and infinitely interesting. And if you didn't already want to hug Takei for all that he has accomplished and endured, you will.

From his childhood in a Japanese-American internment camp in Arkansas to becoming one of the first Asian-Americans on primetime television to his gig as Howard Stern's official announcer to being on the frontlines for gay rights (in particular for marriage equality), Takei's story is utterly unique. It's fascinating to see him in his pre- and post-"Star Trek" days still forced to play stereotypical Asian roles, but it's clear that doing so fueled him to create the musical "Allegiance," about an elderly man remembering his days in an internment camp.

It's clear that few things thrilled Takei more professionally than the day Sulu became a starship captain in one of the Star Trek movies. The relationship he has with various former crew members is examined to a point here (shockingly, William Shatner does not come across well here), but director Kroot spends the bulk of the film taking closer looks at Takei's more political side. Both fans and casual curiosity seekers will have things to get excited about and be entertained by in this movie, in particular Takei irreverent humor that he shares with millions on Facebook.

To Be Takei is a rich and rewarding watch that works both as an examination of why some actors hit the pop culture zeitgeist while others don't, but it also goes well beyond the public persona of Takei to show us what inspires, scares and propels him as a human being. He's great with his fans, and he attempts to be patient with Brad. This is a film that successfully allows us to discover the artist and the man. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinematheque.

Me and You

Although made two years ago, director Bernardo Bertolucci's first film since 2003's The Dreamers, his latest work Me and You fits in quite comfortably with many of his more recent works about the independence of young people and both the good and bad they discover inside themselves when set free to explore. Fourteen-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) doesn't seem to fit in anywhere. His fellow students find him strange, while his parents don't seem to know how to communicate with him. His mother seems encouraged when Lorenzo decides to go on a long ski trip with his class, but in fact, the boy breaks into the basement of his family's apartment building and lives there alone with his ant farm, music, a stack of books and an ample food supply. Using the furniture in storage in the basement, he sets up a fairly sweet pad.

But before too long, Lorenzo's older, quite lovely half-sister, Olivia (Tea Falco) stumbles upon his fortress of solitude and agrees to keep quiet about his running away if she can stay with him, out of site from people that are looking for her. The two exchange stories about their shared parents, and get into nasty arguments about her life choices and his isolation. Burtolucci isn't as interested in the reasons that led to these young people being in this basement as he is in the way they will leave. The pair feed off each other, sure, but more than that, they challenge each other and eventually fortify one another, as if this whole experience in the basement were a team-building exercise.

Me and You features layers of betrayal (Olivia invites one of her much older sugar daddies into the lair, and Lorenzo loses his mind), cooperation, resentment and a great deal of emotional tension. Both seemingly come out the other side a bit wiser but perhaps not much smarter. Burtolucci has certainly presented us with a wonderful acting exercise with these two great performers, but I'm not sure the narrative lessons are all there, and that's not really an issue. He knows how to keep a scene interesting, even when he's keeping his work's deeper meanings a mystery. The film opens today in Chicago at the Davis Theater as part of its ongoing "Cinema Made in Italy" series.

 

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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 21 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Foxcatcher, The Homesman, Force Majeure, America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth, National Gallery & Miss Meadows

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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