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Column Fri Oct 17 2014

Fury, Whiplash, The Good Lie, The Best of Me, The Book of Life, St. Vincent, Keep On Keepin' On & 20,000 Days on Earth

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgHey everyone. I haven't done this in quite a while, but between unexpected travel in the last week and the still-going Chicago International Film Festival eating up my days, I haven't had time to compose full-length reviews of the many, many movies open up this weekend — many of them quite great. So I'm going to try and blaze through the many offerings with just a two or three paragraphs each. We'll see how that goes. Enjoy!

Fury

Writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch, Street Kings, writer of Training Day) has always been a stickler for authenticity (if you ignore his last film, Sabotage), and his latest work — the World War II tank barrage Fury — is no exception. With Brad Pitt leading a five-man crew during the final push into war-torn Germany in 1945, the film concentrates on bloodshed, explosions and ear-splitting volume that might make you want to consider earplugs. The film captures the claustrophobic quarters inside the tank and the pure destructive power it represents as these men barrel into one situation after another, outnumbered, outgunned and poorly armored.

The story beings when newbie crew member Norman (Logan Lerman, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is forced to join the team after one of its members dies. The others, including soldiers played by Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal and Shia LaBeouf, immediately resent the new guy, who doesn't help matters by freezing up in the heat of battle. If I'm reading the film correctly, the only way to break Norman in properly is to make him a blood-thirsty killing machine, which is essentially what happens. I'm fairly certain Ayer wants us to see this transformation as both the price we pay for war and something that is a necessary evil to stay alive, but you can't help but mourn the loss of innocence.

There's an odd, almost surreal, middle section of the film in which Pitt and Lerman spend some quality quiet time with two pretty German women eating breakfast, only to have the moment nearly ruined by the other three team members. I'm not quite sure what the point of the sequence is, but it stands as a reminder that any amount of respite was welcome and fleeting. Fury isn't purely an action film, but Ayer stages his action scenes with such a perfect eye for geography and war tactics that you can't help but be impressed to find out that tanks weren't simply a blunt instrument, but were occasionally used as a surgical tool as well. Some of the characters are underwritten and fall into readymade wartime stereotypes, but on the whole, the film gets most of the details right, and the audience is right there during every exhausting minute with this platoon. It's sometimes numbing material, but Ayers handles it perfectly.

Whiplash

A double prize winners at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Whiplash might be the scariest film out right now as it traces the terrifying training of 19-year-old drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller of The Spectacular Now), a student at a top music conservatory, who is hand picked by the toughest instructor at the school, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) as an alternate in his competition-level jazz band. It becomes clear that Fletcher is an abusive (physically and emotionally) teacher, but his methods result in great playing and accolades for the group.

A great number of the scenes in Whiplash feature Teller torturing himself (and bloodying his hands) to get his playing up to the level required to impress Fletcher, a task that becomes all the more important when Andrew is moved to core drummer after an incident involving misplaced music. Andrew attempts to date a girl, but soon realizes that his music must come first; his father (Paul Reiser) tries to get Andrew to dial back the intensity and long hours, but Andrew drive is unstoppable, and the film doesn't necessarily present that as a good thing, since the better and more focused Andrew becomes, the more he cuts people off.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench; writer of Grand Piano) captures the often-destructive drive that inhabits both Andrew and Fletcher flawlessly, and Simmons is so scary (even when he's attempting to be a calming force) that he begins to make even the audience nervous when he arrives on the screen. There's a long sequence set on the stage of Carnegie Hall that is meant to be end of Andrew's career as a drummer that is so nerve-wracking that you are almost in total disbelief at how it turns out. Whiplash is so full of energy, nerve, electricity, pain, suffering and tears that it feels like an entire life being played out before you eyes in a matter of minutes. Chazelle moves the camera in an out of Andrew's drum kit that you fee like you're at the heart of the music. Watching this film is an extraordinary experience that will likely leave you as winded as it does exhilarated. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Good Lie

Perhaps the most fulfilling and incredible story on display in the cinema this weekend is contained in The Good Lie, from director Philippe Falardeau (the writer-director of the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar), telling the unfathomable journey of "The Lost Boys of the Sudan," a group of about 3,600 boys and girls who escaped a bloody civil war in Sudan to America, where they were met with an entirely new set of challenges. The film follows four Sudanese children who walk thousands of miles on foot from their destroyed village to a relatively safe refugee camp, where they lived for 15 years until their names came up for immigration to the U.S. with the help of a Catholic charities organization.

Played as adults by actual Sudanese actors (many "lost boys" themselves) Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal and Nyakuoth Weil, the characters land up stateside, with the men going to Kansas City, where they are met by employment advisor Carrie, played by Reese Witherspoon, who attempts to find the men jobs. But when you've never seen the overwhelming contents of a grocery store or used a phone or been in a car, how do you hold down a job? But with the help of Carrie, her boss Jack (Corey Stoll) and a Catholic aide worker (Sarah Baker), the men all adjust with varying degrees of success, while they also attempt to bring their one remaining brother over to join them from Sudan.

Although you might assume Witherspoon's presence in The Good Lie would be a distracting, strangely, something as simple as dyeing her hair dark goes a long way to de-glamorizing her to the point where she just seems like a normal, Midwestern gal with no Hollywood in her. The film manages to tell its difficult story in a manner that keeps things moving and doesn't get bogged down with sentimentality. The Good Lie is not based on any particular people; instead, Margaret Nagle's screenplay is based on a collection of shared experiences, and the result is quite moving and memorable. I was especially transfixed by the sequences in America, where even the simplest tasks are perplexing for the new arrivals. But the learning is part of the fun and joy of the film.

I'm guessing a great number of you probably won't check this film out, and that would be a massive disservice to a quality work. Since a great many of the circumstances that brought these folks to America are still going on today, The Good Lie feels like it's still a part of a living, breathing experience that needs light shone upon it. Give it a chance. Don't be scared away by the harsh opening scenes in Sudan. This is righteous filmmaking that doesn't feel like a history lesson or morality tale; it's simply a fantastic story.

The Best of Me

The quality of the actors gets better as the years go on, but the film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks novels stay remarkably inept and dopey. Case in point, The Best of Me, which tells the star-crossed love story of Dawson and Amanda, played as adults by James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan. In high school, Dawson (Luke Bracey from "Home and Away" and G.I. Joe: Retaliation) liked to work on cars when he wasn't getting beaten by his evil-doing dad and brothers; while Amanda (If I Stay's Liana Liberato) is from a well-off family, the kind who try to bribe the boyfriend to stay away from her with enough money to get Dawson through four years of college.

The overly complicated plot brings the grown-up ex-lovers together for the first time in 20 years when their mutual friend Tuck (Gerald McRaney) dies and leaves them both a last wish in his will that they must carry out together. It's Tuck's subtle way of bringing these crazy kids back together, the way he believes it should always have been. The film's great mystery is why they broke up in the first place, but even after we find that out, The Best of Me refuses to end. Sparks is one of those rarified storytellers who things three acts aren't enough; he plows forward into four and five acts without thinking twice, and just when you think the road has been cleared for our reunited lovers to be together, he says, "Not so fast!"

I happen to adore both Marsden and Monaghan in just about anything, but even these immensely talented and likable actors can't overcome or boost this horribly written movie. And director Michael Hoffman (Soapdish, Resurrection, The Last Station) brings less than nothing to this decades-spanning mess. A story like this doesn't need villains, especially ones who seem mixed in a lab at Central Casting and poured into the baddie mold. I'm sure hearts will swoon and tears will be shed, but it's hard to imagine even the most die-hard romance novel fan falling for this stink-pile of a film that hurts even to think about, let alone write a review. I don't hate all films based on Sparks books, so this isn't my knee-jerk reaction to his unique brand of love sap; but The Best of Me represents the worst of his writing, and the worst type of big-screen love story.

The Book of Life

I read a review of this film that described it as a Pixar ripoff, which seems about as inaccurate a description of The Book of Life as I can imagine. For one, the animated film's focus on Mexican culture seems like something Pixar wouldn't go near, only because they try to appeal to all cultures, so narrowing in on one would be limiting. But more importantly, the story of The Book of Life is actually death, with nearly all of the characters dying at one point, if they don't begin the movie dead.

From producer Guillermo del Toro and director and co-writer Jorge Gutierrez, The Book of Life is a story set during the Day of the Dead, when the living visit the graves of their deceased loved ones seeking guidance or comfort or just a sign on the day when the spirits are as close to the living as they can get during the year. But this is also something of a love story, pitting two childhood friends — Manolo (voiced by Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) — who had crushes on Maria (Zoe Saldana), who left their village as a girl and returned in the present a lovely woman. Joaquin is a master soldier, while Manolo is forced to train as a bullfighter but his true love is singing. The film also pits two warring spirits, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), who rules the more peaceful spirit world above, and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), who controls the spirit world below. These two have a lovely wager regarding who will win the heart of Maria, and the price is steep depending on who wins.

The greatest thing The Book of Life has going for it is its visual style. Most of the characters appear to be superbly crafted toys or puppets brought to life. This is partially because the story is being told by a museum tour guide to a group of children, and she's using wooden dolls to illustrate the players. But it's also a great look at the iconography of the Day of the Dead. The attention to detail in the character designs is blazing with color and is extremely impressive, especially once you meet a few of the monsters brought in from the underworld to settle the bet. I'll admit, Ice Cube adding a voice to the Candle Maker, a waxen creature that interacts with the dead on a regular basis, was a bit much, but he's only in the film for a bit near the end. The truth is, I was bewitched by this mildly creepy, eye-popping affair.

I hope one day Del Toro gets a chance to make an animated film less geared toward children and more aimed at freaking audiences out. I know he's got it in him; we just need to find a way to get it out. In the mean time, The Book of Life is here to give us a taste of his babysitting skills.

St. Vincent

Sometimes a film works just because the performances and the chemistry among the performers works. Welcome to St. Vincent, from writer-director Theodore Melfi (whose only other feature was 1999's Winding Roads), a story that isn't about being original or believable. Its sole purpose is to introduce us to characters who we care about and who care about each other, even if their means of expression are a bit off kilter (bordering on unrecognizable). The film doesn't work (or exist) without Bill Murray as Vincent, the cantankerous drunk and gambler who has the great misfortune (in his estimation) of having Maggie, a single mother (Melissa McCarthy), and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door.

St. Vincent is a story loaded with characters in various stages of desperation. Maggie's is a bit easier to spot, as she holds down a job at a local hospital but doesn't make enough money to hire a full-time babysitter for her son. Vincent has gambling debts up to his eyeballs, and is looking for a way to make a quick buck, so the two strike an uneasy agreement to have Vincent take care of her son for a few hours after school until she gets home for dinner. Naturally, Vincent takes the kid to a local dive bar and the horse track, where a nasty loan shark (Terrence Howard) threatens him; he also introduces Oliver to his pregnant stripper/prostitute friend Daka (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts), who is literally a hooker with a heart of gold who hides that goodness behind an abrasive personality. The film's cast of colorful characters also includes a funny turn by Chris O'Dowd as Oliver's Catholic school priest/teacher full of good advice.

As much as you might think you've seen Murray in roles like this, you actually haven't. There's something less amusing and more pained about Vincent than the typical role Murray takes on. And the more we learn about Vincent's past, the more we understand his present condition. St. Vincent is a film about how we find value in ourselves through the eyes of others, and when Oliver is given the task of giving a presentation about a modern-day saint in his life, we see a man given his own meaning back to him through the eyes of this young man who loves him unconditionally — something Vincent has only experienced once before in his life. McCarthy also is quite strong here in a more dramatic part, and I'm pretty sure she barely utters a joke throughout the film.

St. Vincent finds a way to be sweet without being sticky or sickening about it. It skillfully finds a way to deal with dark material without sacrificing laughs, which is no small achievement. It's a terrific film that, in big and small ways, opens our eyes to what many of these actors are capable of, in the context of a plot that is simple yet elegant.

Keep On Keepin' On

Not unlike Whiplash, the documentary Keep On Keepin' On is about a young musician under the instruction of an older, wiser player. And that's about where the similarities end. In this wonderful doc from first-time director Al Hicks, we follow five years in the lives and relationship of 93-year-old jazz legend Clark Terry and his piano-playing protege Justin Kauflin, who happens to be blind. The film is both an extraordinary music history lesson about Terry and his influence on everyone from Miles Davis and Quincy Jones (he was also the first African-American player in the "Tonight Show" band), and about the importance of passing on musical knowledge to future generations of performers.

Shot over five years, Keep On Keepin' On also deals with the hard realities of growing old, with Terry going through a couple of health scares during the course of filming. But at its core, this is the story of a friendship that is bound together by great music. Terry walks Justin through song after son until he gets it right; but Terry also teaches the young man lessons about how to treat people, getting over stagefright before a big competition, and remembering to enjoy the music and not get lost in practicing all the time. He also introduces Justin to Quincy Jones, which has lasting ramifications for Justin.

Keep On Keepin' On is nothing but positive energy keeping out the bad, and while its utter lack of cynicism and negativity may be too much for some to take, it's wonderful to occasionally find a film that dares to be about good people doing great work. Plus the wall-to-wall music is a rare treat and a bit of culture all rolled into one. But when a doc's subject can gather the likes of Jones, Bill Cosby, Dianne Reeves and Herbie Hancock to speak to his significance as a musician and teacher, that's a special thing. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

At select opening weekend screenings of Keep On Keepin' On at the Music Box Theatre, a live musical performance from one of the film's subjects, Justin Kauflin, will happen, as well as a Q&A with director Al Hicks (which I'll be moderating). The screenings are scheduled for: Friday, Oct. 17 at 7:15pm; Saturday, Oct. 18 at 7:15pm; and Sunday, Oct. 19 at 3pm.

20,000 Days on Earth

I'm a firm believer in the flexible definition of "documentary," and few films in recent memory stretch it further than co-directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's take on the life and career of musician, screenwriter and all-around creative force Nick Cave, who seems to have agreed to be a part of this project as a way to celebrate his 20,000th day being alive. The film takes the form of a free-floating narrative, with bits of remembrances, interviews, archival footage and photos, and the sorts of things you'd find in a typical doc thrown in for structure. But Cave's process isn't about constructing a timeline as much as it is throwing light on a man who has lived in the dark for so long. And if he doesn't feel a bit of music video fully captures him, he and the directors stage something that does.

Some of the best footage is of Cave in the studio — recording or rehearsing — as well as small moments of him on stage toward the end of the film. He barrels through a song as if he'll collapse if he doesn't get it out of his system, like psychological detox. I could watch him for weeks just in front of a microphone, dipping into the audience and pulling back. There are other moments of Cave sifting through photos that an archivist has pulled for a book of some sort on his career, and he provides commentary on each pre-selected image.

There are a few revealing interviews with the likes of actor Ray Winstone, Warren Ellis and former band mate Blixa Bargeld, but it's the staged conversation between Cave and one-time duet partner Kylie Minogue that is by far the most hypnotic and confessional. Her popularity pulled him into the mainstream briefly, and his dark reputation gave her a bit of much-needed edge at the time. Cave's wife Susie is a major source of inspiration and stability for Cave after years of self-abuse via drugs and alcohol, but she is never interviewed and is barely shown on camera (I'm guessing by choice). But somehow her absence from the film underscores her significance in his life. And when all is said and done, 20,000 Days on Earth is an impressionistic, yet somehow complete, portrait of a man who has always been the quintessential cool rock star, while maintaining his vulnerability and boundless creativity. It's a sometimes puzzling but always illuminating work of art, which seems fitting. The film opens today in Chicago 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

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