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Column Fri Sep 12 2014

The Drop, Dolphin Tale 2, The Skeleton Twins, Finding Fela, Code Black & Gringo Trails

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The Drop

It seems strangely fitting that the final major roles from both Philip Seymour Hoffman (in A Most Wanted Man) and James Gandolfini (in this week's release The Drop) are portraits of soul-crushing loneliness. Both actors have played in this sandbox before, but in both roles, the emptiness leads to careless and poor decisions that impact the rest of their lives.

Written by novelist Dennis Lehane (Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, Shutter Island) and based on his short story "Animal Rescue," The Drop marks the second powerful work from Belgium-born director Michaël R. Roskam, who helmed the 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar-nominee, Bullhead. The film centers of former thug and current Brooklyn bartender Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy of Locke, Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises) who works with his cousin Marv (Gandolfini) at a bar that is used to funnel cash from various numbers rackets, payoffs and other criminal activities. Like many other bars around the borough, this is a "drop bar," where cash is literally handed to the bartender, who in turn drops it into a safe he doesn't have access to. After the close of business, the cash is picked up — end of story.

About 10 years earlier, Marv used to actually own the bar, until the Chechnyan mob came in, Marv flinched, and now they own it. Needless to say, Marv is still sore about the situation, and he continues to talk a somewhat fictionalized game about his power status in the neighborhood before the Chechnyans took over. Now he lives with his sister (Anne Dowd), and he's miserable with his lot in life.

Bob also lives alone, but his prospects are better. He meets Nadia, (Noomi Rapace), a woman from the neighborhood, when he finds a beat-up dog in her trashcan that he promises to nurse back to health (with her help) and keep as his own. Bob plays his emotional cards close to his chest, but it's clear that he has a soft spot for the dog and Nadia. Before long, Bob also meets Nadia's ex-boyfriend, a real scumbag named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in director Roskam's Bullhead and is a genuine, quite threatening scene stealer here), who seems to have hatched a blackmail scheme in which he gets money and the girl from Bob.

As with most of his film work (if you haven't seen Locke yet, you owe it to yourself), Hardy is the kind of nuanced actor that you just sit back and observe. Every mannerism, every look, every movement is so clearly deliberate yet utterly natural that he disappears into each character he plays so completely, you forget that you're watching an actor. But we also come to suspect that Bob's low-key demeanor is masking something about the man inside. Is it intelligence, or something much darker? His exchanges with the police detective (John Ortiz) after the bar is robbed of a relatively small amount of cash (thankfully, not the drop money) are worth paying close attention to. Is he getting tripped up by the detective into spilling certain details, or is he deliberately leaking bits of information to send the cops in a specific direction?

Gandolfini's Marv is the living definition of frustration. He's never gotten past what he views as his own potential as a made man getting cut short by these invading Chechnyans, and he seems intent on evening the score without really thinking things through. In many ways, Marv is the closest Gandolfini has come to playing a Tony Soprano type since that show left the air, but imagine if Tony lost his power and was forced to run a gas station. Marv was never a truly powerful man, but the sentiment and hurt feelings are enough to drive him to make several stupid moves.

The Drop has several connected plot threads, and we spend much of the film wondering which will get tied up and which will get cut loose. I would have liked to have seen Rapace's Nadia get a little more built up, rather than simply being portrayed as a woman to get passed around from one brooding asshole to the next, slightly less brooding one. My guess is that there was more detail in her character at some point, and it was the first to get cut either in the script or in the editing room. But for the most part, the film is beautifully realized, from the gloomy score to the lovely, stark cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (who also shot Bullhead).

Director Roskam does a great job capturing the neighborhood, where anything that might be considered aesthetically pleasing is stomped out in favor of more of the same dull colors and shapes. Setting the story in the winter only adds to the lack of color and warmth (literally and figuratively). The Drop has a few terrific, if low-key, surprises scattered throughout, and in a film that could have simply been a solid character study, the fact that it also has a complex plot boosts its gravitas in just the right places. I guess that's my way of saying that, not only does the movie feature a great final performance from James Gandolfini, but it's a work of substance in many other ways. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Dolphin Tale 2

A follow up to the modest 2011 hit Dolphin Tale, Dolphin Tale 2 clearly takes place a couple of years later after the Clearwater marine hospital has been built up into more of an educational aquarium that's less about the animals doing tricks and more about hands-on interaction between kids and marine life. The true-life tale of Winter, the dolphin with a prosthetic tail, has inspired millions of dollars of donations to build bigger and better facilities, but the mission is still the same: to take distressed marine life, rehab it and set it free. Winter is an exception because she could not survive in the wild, since she can't wear the tail all the time (without it, her spine would curve and be exceedingly painful), and because she's paired with another female dolphin that cannot be set free, all is well as far as the USDA regulators are concerned. Until that other female dies of old age.

As with the first film, there are no real villains beyond time and perfectly reasonable health standards for the animal. When a viable female dolphin is brought into the hospital, still run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), there is hope among Winter's closest caretakers, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) that the two will be a good match. Alas, the new dolphin's ailments are curable, and she must be returned to the sea, leaving a USDA inspector (played by writer-director Charles Martin Smith) breathing down their necks with a deadline for finding a new companion for Winter.

The film features a small number of subplots involving such non-problems as whether Sawyer will spend several months away from Winter to take part in a fully paid-for marine biology trip in New England. There's also an injured sea turtle's love affair with a pelican (if you think I'm joking, feel free to plunk down money to see this film). Actors who were more prevalent in the first film (Ashley Judd as Sawyer's always-understanding mom; Morgan Freeman as Dr. McCarthy, who designed Winter's tail; and Kris Kristofferson as Dr. Haskett's father) seem to be around just for the vibe but aren't really given much to do beyond cheer, smile and be generally encouraging; if they're lucky, they get to deliver a pep talk.

Much like its predecessor, Dolphin Tale 2's greatest contribution to the world is educational. You actually do feel like you learn a little something about these beautiful, complex creatures and their behaviors. And I'm guessing the filmmakers would be more than happy if that is any kid's takeaway from seeing this film. Many of the events in this film actually happened (I'm guessing in a less dramatic fashion), which makes it all the more a shame that so much of this movie feels phony, full of manufactured conflicts.

Not surprisingly, another candidate for pairing with Winter arises, but even that is fraught with difficulty, tearing poor Sawyer apart so much that he ignores the fact that his longtime pal Hazel has got a little crush on him. Dolphin Tale 2 is a harmless enough in terms of family entertainment, and there is certainly much to be learned and taught about the way marine life is cared for and put on display to the public, but this film is so utterly forgettable and uninspired as a narrative that you end up feeling like you're not so much watching it, but suffering through something. I know as a critic, we aren't supposed to feel bad for crapping on a movie like this, but I do a little bit. So I'll leave you by saying that if you were inspired or otherwise made to feel good by Dolphin Tale, I'm guessing you'll be tickled by the new film, which has a bit more at stake but is still front loaded with positive messages and great undersea photography. Wheee!

The Skeleton Twins

Any pairing of Bill Hader and Kirstin Wiig seems like a smart idea. The pair worked together for many years on "Saturday Night Live" and as supporting players in Adventureland several years back. But the twist with The Skeleton Twins is that not only does the pair play twins, but the film features many moments of pure, uncut drama, tempered (but by no means undercut) by some of the darkest humor you'll see all year. If you can watch a film that opens with not one but two failed suicide attempts and still find plenty of reasons to laugh, you know you've tapped into something special.

Hader's Milo is a cynical, gay, never-worked actor who fell in love when he was very young and never truly got over it. Wiig's Maggie had more artistic inclinations when she was younger, but presently she's married to a perpetual go-getter Lance (a fantastically "up" Luke Wilson). After Milo's suicide attempt in the film's opening moments doesn't quite work, Maggie shows up at his hospital bedside after not having seen each other in 10 years. More happens in Skeleton Twins in the pauses between dialogue than in the words themselves, and if you don't see it in that first scene together, you aren't awake.

Maggie invites Milo to stay with her and Lance for a time until he gets his head back on straight, and naturally nothing makes you forget your depression than going back to the town where all of your dreams were born and your heart was first crushed after a fling with a high school teacher (Ty Burrell). But Milo has ulterior motives for returning home, primarily involving seeking out that teacher, who is now married with children. Co-writers Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson (this is his second film after True Adolescence) don't shy away from some fairly uncomfortable material, especially this relationship, which when it first happened was technically pedophilia, despite Milo being a willing participant in the love affair. And no one was more protective of Milo than Maggie, who never stops reminding him that he was too young to make decisions about sex at 15.

But Maggie is engaging in her own variety of self-destructive behavior, as she begins sleeping with another man, and not for the first time, just to feel like there's something in her life worth getting excited about again. The Skeleton Twins features a lot of heartbreak and the familiar sense of aggression and anger that you can really only share with (and aim at) close family members. The scenes with Wiig and Hader are something really special — a blend of familiarity, judgment, distance and a shared sense of having missed the opportunity to dream big. Lance certainly feels like the type of man many women would be lucky to have, but Maggie isn't one of those people. And Milo is stuck in the past, clinging to a feeling about a man that will never be reciprocated.

But The Skeleton Twins is also funny in places that seem so inappropriate, you really don't know whether to burst out laughing or cringe in silence. Odds are you might do both. While we've seen Wiig do some variations on drama before this, Hader is the real discovery here. Much like Will Forte in Nebraska last year, Hader expands our expectations in him and our preconceived notions about his talents and limits as an actor. He essentially blows both out of the water with this role. Moments of pure joy and followed by bitter, emotionally charged conflicts, but the film's tone doesn't feel uneven.

In fact, the writing and directing is remarkably self assured and creates one of the more starkly honest portraits of family I've seen in some time (just wait until the mom shows up briefly). It's not an easy ride, but The Skeleton Twins is a rewarding one. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Finding Fela

There's no getting around it, I happen to really like the way director Alex Gibney makes a documentary. The Oscar-winning filmmaker of Taxi to the Dark Side, as well as We Steal Secrets, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and, most recently, The Armstrong Lie, Gibney effortlessly moves between films of great national importance to stories of pop culture figures (his biography of Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo, isn't one of his finer efforts, but it's sill quite watchable). His latest work is about the Afrobeat sensation and relentless activist for the people of his native Nigeria, Fela Kuti, whose impact on the world of music and politics is still felt today.

A big reason Fela is a known quantity today is because his life was the subject of the recent hit Broadway musical Fela! Gibney wisely uses the biographical structure of the play and Fela's music as the framework for this film, which was staged by Bill T. Jones, whose guidance in getting the musical made is clear from this film. Kuti was a man of great contradictions in many areas of his life, and even in the areas where there were no contradictions, many did not approve. He had 27 wives who all lived with him in his enormous compound, he was terrible with money, he smoked the most enormous joints you've ever seen on stage, and he never missed an opportunity to rail against the local military, which harassed him ceaselessly throughout the '70s and '80s.

Finding Fela is something of a crash course in African and Nigerian culture, especially politics. Kuti was a gifted orator, a thoughtful musician, and a man whose spiritual beliefs wove themselves throughout his epic songs. The film makes clear that there are a lot of Fela apologists in the world, since almost no one dares question how much danger his words sometimes put those closest to him in, including his mother, who was thrown from a second-story window by police during one especially brutal raid.

But the film also presents Fela at his finest — on stage. The unbelievable amount of concert footage (much of it lovingly restored) is nothing short of inspirational. On stage, Fela's shows were more than just a collection of musicians; they were performance art, political protest, and religious revival fused together in a rhythmic pulse that changed world music forever. A great deal of the back half of Finding Fela is devoted to Kuti's changing musical landscape, and it's ear-opening to say the least.

If you disapprove of anything about Kuti's life, it may be about the way he died. Or more specifically, it may be about the way he refused to admit how he was dying, which was from AIDS. For such an outspoken man, he refused to acknowledge that he even had the disease, as was the custom in all of Africa. With just some acknowledgement, he could have helped to break down the stigma of HIV-AIDS in a part of the world that desperately needed a spokesperson to open up the conversation. Gibney allows two of Kuti's brother, both doctors, make this point for him quite eloquently.

Finding Fela is an exceptional, if slightly glorifying, work about a man few people on this half of the globe know anything about, and the documentary does quite an impressive job painting a complete picture, using a canvas of music, dance and spiritualism. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Code Black

In a good week for documentary releases, this one might be relevant to the most people. It's a in-depth, fairly harsh look at the modern day public hospital system — or what's left of it — told through the lens of the Los Angeles County Hospital's legendary trauma bay known as "C-Booth," said by some to be the birthplace of modern ER medicine. C-Booth doesn't actually exist anymore, not since safety codes, regulations and the need for a crushing abundance of paperwork forced the hospital to build a new building and completely redesign its trauma center and ER operations.

But thankfully director Ryan McGarry's Code Black has loads of footage of the old C-Booth, which when fully staffed looks like a sea of doctors, nurses, administrators and other emergency care specialists crammed into a small space all focusing on three beds, usually holding patients on the verge of death. And yet, on the perimeter of this chaos are senior staff who are carefully orchestrating everything, and as a result of this insane process, not only was staff morale high, but more patients were seen and many lives were saved.

But with the growing fear of lawsuits, emergency medicine has become awash with forms and signatures, that often take longer to fill out than the doctor will spend with the actual patient. As a result, wait times are in the double-digit hours, waiting rooms are overflowing, and doctors feel overwhelmed by every aspect of their job except working with patients, which is all they want to do. Even attempts to create a flow of patients that is more like the old C-Booth days is subverted when budget cuts force parts of the new hospital to shutter temporarily. The domino effect of even the smallest change or cut can be devastating.

Code Black makes it crystal clear that this final safety net to America's poorest citizens is in danger of total collapse. And the number of public hospitals in the country is such a small percentage of all care facilities that the numbers may startle you. The one thing the film doesn't address is the impact of the Affordable Care Act on this system. Since private hospitals can kick out uninsured patients once they are stabilized, the question becomes, have these large numbers of newly insured patients been able to go to private hospitals and not depend solely on publicly funded establishments?

As someone who may one day have to visit a hospital, I'm not necessarily opposed to the double- and triple-check methods of forms, but if it prolongs suffering and lead to seemingly endless waits surrounded by other sick people, there probably needs to be a streamlined version of what is shown in this film. Code Black (the code name for an over-capacity waiting room) is an almost inconceivable look at a hospital that once was and one today that is all too familiar. Both are eye-opening glimpses, but one seems designed to actually add to the symptoms of the afflicted. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Gringo Trails

If you aren't much of a traveler to exotic locales, the new documentary Gringo Trails probably isn't going to present you with something that will impact you much — which is not to say it isn't a fascinating examination of how tourists and tourism have the potential to truly ruin some of the great places in the world.

Director and anthropologist Pegi Vail begins her look into the popularization of certain natural and man-made attractions by telling the story of Yossi Ghinsberg, an Israeli tourist who was separated from his travel companions in the Bolivian Amazon in 1981. He ended up surviving three weeks alone in the jungle, and later wrote a book about his harrowing adventure. The unexpected offshoot of the book is that travelers (almost entirely from Israel for the first few years) came to the exact place where Ghinsberg began his journey just so they could visit some of the same spots he did. Before long, the area was overrun with tourists, hotels, and guides who didn't know the first thing about the jungle, the danger to/from wildlife, or Ghinsberg's story (although many claimed to have known him or been the ones to rescue him).

This story is the launching point to show how nations must have policies in place to mitigate the impact tourism has on their sacred places, because if there is a buck to be made and no law against how it can be made, shady characters will essentially ruin what is special about a place. According to many of the travel writers interviewed for the film, tourism is supposed to be about immersing oneself in another culture. But what often happens is said culture does its best to lure Western dollars by making the visit as friendly to outsiders as possible, rather than insisting that outsiders follow strict rules of conduct to preserve what is special about the region. Or the destination makes itself as friendly to underfunded backpackers and party animals who don't give two shits about decimating a tropical island, as is the case in several locations in Southeast Asia.

These well-worn travel routes give the film its title, and Gringo Trails presents us with the idea that both visitor and host alter each other during the course of the visit. The film wonders, is this bad, good, avoidable, stoppable? Tourists bring much-needed money to poor places, but they also bring change, and it's an ethical challenge that the movies shows us from all side (there are far more than two sides to this discussion).

This is a story about tourists' search for a unique and unspoiled experience, which of course is ridiculous and nearly impossible. Even nations who manage their tourism well (by charging a lot of money per day to even enter the country as a tourist) are being impacted to a certain degree. Gringo Trails is a well-researched, thoroughly examined bit of cultural anthropology that will either spark the desire to travel within you, or make you want to stay home for fear of destroying someone's else culture. Either way, it's worth checking out. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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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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