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Column Fri Oct 24 2014

Dear White People, Ouija, Birdman, Listen Up Philip, John Wick, Stonehearst Asylum & 23 Blast


Dear White People

Winner of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival's Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent, Dear White People is meant to be many things to many people, but if its only achievement is sparking conversation, I think writer-director Justin Simien can say he accomplished his mission. Simien has wisely set his feature film debut on the campus of Winchester University, as college campuses are both hotbeds of ideas and a place where emotions tend to run hotter than in the real world.

The film follows four black students, the most interesting of which is Samantha White (Tessa Thompson), a bi-racial woman who inadvertently wins the election for head of the traditionally black resident hall. She's also an outspoken voice on campus (via her radio show) on all things racial, and she's secretly dating a white guy. She comes to this story a fully formed character whose past and current ideas are filled in as the film progresses.

Tyler James Williams plays Lionel, a gay nerd who is recruited by the student newspaper to write about black culture, something he feels less than an expert on, despite his full-blown afro. Brandon P. Bell plays Troy, the former head of the dorm, whose father (Dennis Haysbert) also happens to be the school's dean, who has a whole lot of plans for his son, whether that's what he wants or not. Running her moderately followed YouTube show, Coco (Teyonah Parris) is the model of assimilation, who is desperate for attention and fame (hopefully via a reality show that is recruiting on campus). And while she may be seen as a sell out, she also occasionally spouts out some truth that is chilling about her fellow black classmates.

Although Dear White People succeeds to varying degrees as a satire and a sharp comedy, I think the film works best as a gauge of race issues in America. There are those that say that racism is dead ("Obama is a two-term president, and 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar. What more do you want?"), while others see the examples of racism still quite active, just harder to spot. A strong case is made that through tanning, plastic surgery, and blending of music and fashion, white people want to be black more than ever. Of course, the film also puts forth the idea that more black people want to be accepted by their white friends in greater numbers. Most films take pride in the fact that they don't preach or force their ideas on the audience, but Dear White People is proud of the many ideas and talking points it has lined up for its viewership to consider.

In the end, Dear White People becomes less about race and more about celebrating differences, which makes it sound like feel-good, up-with-people, hippie bullshit, but it's far from that. It's a work that seems custom written to spark debate, encourage post-screening talking and get us thinking about admiring what makes us different rather than being afraid of it. A series of photos of racially themed parties held on southern campuses that run during the end credits drive home the truth that racial issues are as confused as they are alive. This is a worthy effort, even with its flaws, and maybe even because of them.

Dear White People producer Lena Waithe will be doing a post-screening Q&A at the ShowPlace ICON, 150 W. Roosevelt Rd., on Friday, Oct. 24 after the 7:30pm and 8:45 shows. For details and tickets, go to the ShowPlace ICON's website.


I really wish that somewhere in Dear White People's cinematic manifesto on the current state of race and race relations in America there was a code of conduct for white characters in horror movies, because boy do they all act stupid. This is not a new problem, any more than black characters tending to get killed off first is a constant (not an issue in Ouija, where there isn't a black face in sight). I guess the thinking is that if the white folks getting tormented by otherworldly, supernatural beings simply walked out of the house at the first weird sound or sign of trouble, there wouldn't be a movie. But in Ouija, the high schoolers tempting ghostly fate might as well build a billboard begging the spirits to fuck with them like the idiots they are. White people. amiright?

Ouija establishes early on that Laine and Debbie have been friends since they were little girls, and they've been playing with a Ouija board (copyright by Hasbro, just like Transformers and Battleship) just as long. One of the rules of playing the game that is supposed to help you contact and communicate with the dead is that you aren't supposed to play alone, but for some reason, the now-grown Debbie (Shelley Henning) has done just that, stirring up something nasty that causes (or forces) her to commit suicide. Laine (Olivia Cooke) doesn't understand why Debbie has done this, and recruits a handful of mutual friends to investigate using the board, because what else would you do? I guess her diary was unavailable.

Ouija contains the expected number of scares (the bare minimum, if you ask me) — some actually connected to terrifying happenings, but mostly just because one of the other friends pops out from behind a door unexpectedly. There's something of a mystery involved in the history of the house that Debbie and her family lived in that may provide clues to this haunting, and thankfully the always-reliable Lin Shaye arrives as a woman who lived in the house as a girl and lays out the entire backstory in one scene, maybe too conveniently.

But Ouija's greatest sins arise out of a horribly lazy screenplay from Juliet Snowden and first-time director Stiles White (who also wrote Knowing and The Possession). The group of friends (which includes the utterly interchangeable/forgettable Ana Coto, Bianca Santos, Daren Kagasoff and Douglas Smith) will see something utterly horrifying in one moment, and then act like either nothing happened or they forget that it did, and move on with poking at killer ghosts.

With a combined list of producers that includes Jason Blum and the Platinum Dunes collective of Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Bradley Fuller, you might expect something a little more thought out. But Ouija feels like a rough idea (not unlike the sketch of a film Annabelle did a couple weeks ago) that was never actually brought to life in the hands of its director or writers. There is exactly one slightly unexpected twist toward the end of the film, but that hardly makes up for every character being an underwritten cliché. I'll give Olivia Cooke some amount of credit for breathing an iota of life into Laine; she's an actor who will have a career beyond genre work (The Signal, The Quiet Ones, "Bates Motel"); I get no such vibe from the rest of the cast.

If all you require of a horror film these days is for it to make you scream a half-dozen times in 90 minutes, you'll be satisfied with Ouija. If you actually like characters that act like real human beings and scares that are earned through an understanding of atmosphere, lighting, tension, character development and acting, hold tight; I hear that The Conjuring 2 is coming out in 2016.

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

I would not have guessed that director and co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu latest work Birdman would be one of the most divisive films of the year, but these things are so rarely predictable, I guess I shouldn't be terribly surprised. If you allow yourself to get caught up in the parallels between the lead character of the film, Riggan Thomson, an actor who became a massive star after playing the title role in the Birdman superhero movies before walking away at their peak, and the real actor who plays him (Michael Keaton), you'll probably drive yourself crazy and ignore what is truly great about the film. Leaving aside the connective tissue between the magical realism of Iñárritu's fictional world and what we imagine were Keaton's reasons for leaving the Batman films, it can also be legitimately enjoyable, if you don't see the film as a veiled biographical work.

Riggan's careers is on the brink of being flushed down the toilet, and he's risking what little is left of his reputation and finances on opening a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver's short story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," in which he stars, directs and adapted for the stage. He's days away from opening, when he second male lead is injured and must be replaced by an edgy, Method, popular nitwit named Mike (Edward Norton, as interesting and explosive as I've seen him in years). And while Riggan desperately needs the play to be a hit to restore his career, the higher-profile Mike is threatening to steal the focus away from him in the media.

Shot so as to appear that the entire film is one, continuous, unbroken shot (despite the fact that story takes place over several days), Birdman alternates between an endless succession of troubles and obstacles in getting the play up and ready, personal disasters, and an encounter that makes it clear that no matter how good the play is, the most important review of the night will be rousingly negative. Naomi Watts plays another actress in the play, who is also involved with Mike; Emma Stone is Riggan long-ignored daughter, now working for him as his reluctant assistant; Zach Galifianakis is Riggan's producer; Andrea Riseborough is Riggin's current lover, whom he has little regard or use for any longer; and Amy Ryan is Riggin's ex-wife, who still very much worries about his mental well being, as well she should, since the final co-star in the film is the raspy-voiced Birdman himself, who speaks to Riggin as the doubting voice in his head.

Riggin's flights of fancy while hearing or even pretending to be Birdman are both glorious and terrifying. There are clearly moments when we aren't sure if what we're seeing is exactly what's happening or simply Riggin's frazzled imagination, on the verge of collapse. I'll be the first to admit, I'm not sure Birdman hits all of the points at which it's aimed, but it gets a lot more right than wrong. Anchored by gutsy performances by Keaton, Norton and Stone, the film works best as a backstage drama about a group of unstable actors putting on Carver's piece about unstable relationships. Iñárritu (Babel, Amores Perros, 21 Grams) is attempting to capture pure, uncut emotion, filtered through the fragile, self-obsessed psyches of actors. You may not like any of the characters in this film, but you won't be able to take your eyes off them, either, because they are a fascinating train wreck of a company.

Birdman manages to be sloppy and elegant, dreamlike and nightmarish, a technical wonder that feels like a confessionary piece from Iñárritu, who acknowledges that his earlier work may have been a tad too self-serious, bordering on pompous. Hell, even this film borders on bloated, which I think, for once, is on purpose. However you slice it or interpret it, Birdman is a singular vision from a director whose Mexican-born contemporaries — Guilermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron — join him as some of the most inventive and awe-inspiring filmmakers working today. Above all else, it's great to see Keaton back in a leading role, where he belongs, losing his mind like the rest of us. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Listen Up Philip

If you have the capacity to love a film, the lead character of which you will likely never stop hating, then I have just the one for you. Actor-turned-director Alex Ross Perry followup to his quite moving work The Color Wheel is Listen Up Philip, a journey through several months and relationships in the life of up-and-coming author Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), whose second novel in on the brink of publication and getting decent buzz in certain circles, but that doesn't stop him from focusing on the few bad comments, and turning them into fuel for becoming a true intellectual snob.

Philip is aware of his talent and impending fame, and in early scenes, we see him try on being a bit of a minor jerk to his publisher's publicity team (refusing to do interviews for the new book) as well as his girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), who has her own set of issues regarding her success as a photographer.

Watching the fully bearded Schwartzman unleash on people is such a meek manner makes it feel like he's trying on being a full-blown jerk for size, and it's clear that he likes the fit. What makes his criticisms of those around him all the more infuriating is that they all revolve around how much someone supported him before he got some notoriety or how he doesn't need them now that he's captured the attention of truly great authors, such as his idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). For Philip, the universe rotates around him — the big bright, shining sun.

Listen Up Philip doesn't contain what you'd think of as a conventional plot; it's more a series of encounters, not all of which even include Philip. When he moves out of the apartment with Ashley to spend some creative quiet time in Zimmerman's summer home to escape the screeching bustle of New York City, the film spends a great deal of time following Ashley to truly gauge the impact of his behavior on what follows in her life.

Another sizable chunk of time is spent with Zimmerman and his estranged daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter) at the summer home, clearly continuing a decades-long battle over who wrecked whose life most completely. And it is in these scenes specifically that we realize Philip is in the early stages of transforming into Zimmerman, a man for whom intimate connections are an impossibility because if the focus shifts too far from him, he gets resentful.

With a great female supporting cast that includes Jess Weixler, Dree Hemingway, Kate Lyn Sheil and Joséphine de La Baume, Listen Up Philip is one of the better spotlights for women you'll likely see all year. Yes, they are all seen through the dour eyes of Philip, but a few get their own side-stories that are quite enlightening. The movie is an odd but fulfilling blend of dark humor and an exercise in creative cruelty, both of which are quite entertaining if you can handle watching a succession of people taking verbal hits to the face for nearly two hours. I have a high tolerance for such word violence, so I truly liked the film, which opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Actor Jason Schwartzman will be doing post-screening Q&As at the Music Box on Friday, Oct. 24 after the 6pm and 8:30pm shows. For details and tickets, go to the Music Box's website.

John Wick

I love the world as envisioned by screenwriter Derek Kolstad and veteran stuntmen-turned-first-time-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. It's a place where corporate assassinations are so commonplace that the assassins have a designated hotel in New York City where they all stay and no actual killing is allowed to happen, or the management will have a few things to say. And that's just one element of John Wick, a brutal and bloody revenge thriller that comes closer than anything I've seen Keanu Reeves do in quite some time to him reclaiming his spot as a force to be reckoned with on the action front.

Wick is a retired hitman, whose wife (Bridget Moynahan) dies of cancer, leaving him alone and without purpose in his quiet, isolated home. By pure coincidence, while gassing up his muscle car, a group of thugs come at him wondering how much he'd be willing to sell it for. When he tells them it's not for sale, they hunt him down, beat him within an inch of his life, destroy his home, kill his dog and take his car, sending Wick in a rage spiral, which only blood can end. It just so happens the leader of these thugs (Alfie Allen) is the son of top Russian mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyquist), who understands Wick's motivation but wants to appear to protect his son as well. Tarasov sends men to kill Wick, but that's not such an easy task.

What follows is a full-on assault, with Wick knocking off the rust and aiming himself directly at Tarasov and his son. Directors Leitch and Stahelski are masters of the action realm (look up their credits; you'll see), so it's no surprise that the stunt work and gunplay is swift, visceral and savagely executed. What's surprising is the graceful, stylish look of the film, particularly in interior sequences at Wick's home or the assassins' hotel, run by Ian McShane's Winston, managed by Charon (Lance Reddick). Each stage of the chase is a glorious new set piece, with high production value, that we get to see leveled by the time the fighting ends. And everyone seems to be having fun without making the film an exercise in camp. Supporting work from the likes of John Leguizamo, Willem Dafoe, Dean Winters and Adrianne Palicki serves to heighten to kill numbers and cool factor. Dafoe's Marcus is especially slick and crafty as a fellow assassin, whose allegiance to and friendship with Wick is tested.

I've long believed that the assassin sub-genre has been played out, which doesn't mean there isn't room for creativity and new blood. And John Wick is a hefty kick to the balls of a genre that needed to get its ass out of the familiar and into something fresh. The film also introduces us to two exceptional workhorse directors, who seem tailor made to ramp up their action (and budgets) for something bigger (and hopefully better) for their next movie. And there isn't much more to say about it. If you crave pure, uncut action with little room for mercy and a whole lot of rage-filled death, you'll probably want to see John Wick several times in a row.

Stonehearst Asylum

The most certifiable release of the week, month and possibly year comes courtesy of director Brad Anderson (Session 9, The Machinist, Transsiberian and many great episodes of television on such shows as "The Wire," "Fringe," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Killing") and concerns the state of late-19th-century mental hospitals, in particular, the one called Stonehearst Asylum. Jim Sturgess is Dr. Edward Newgate, a recent med school graduate who takes a job at a mental hospital run by colleague Dr. Lamb, played by Ben Kingsley. Within hours, Newgate has his life threatened by inmates and staff alike, and he falls deeply for the beautiful patient Eliza Graves (Kate Beckinsale).

Since much of the film's plot is wrapped up in a not-hard-to-figure-out mystery, I won't go too deep into the story, but when you're dealing with a screenplay based on a Edgar Allan Poe short story (adapted by Joe Gangemi), it's a safe bet that nothing is as it seems and horrible things await. The film is top loaded with great British character actors like Sinead Cusack, Jason Flemyng, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, and the king, Michael Caine, so expect an abundance of scenery chewing and just general glee in the face of so much talent. Thewlis in particular is quite menacing indeed as Lamb's right-hand man (and I don't want to know where that hand has been) and general enforcer.

Anderson and his production designers have done such stunning work on the sets that it feels like the modern-day equivalent of a Hammer Film release. As you'd expect from an asylum picture, Stonehearst Asylum features some unsavory moments in patient care, cleanliness, general behavior and treatment. In the midst of so much acting greatness, Sturgess gets buried a bit in the grander personalities. That being said, it can be tricky at times to be the calm center in a world filled memorable personalities. Anderson is something of a master of creating the appropriate atmosphere, not just to scare us, but to match mood with story. Sure, this one is a little on the nutty side, but it's one of the most emotionally appropriate films you'll be lucky to see, and it has a nasty, humorous streak running through its core that all ages will find memorable.

23 Blast

Somewhere deep within the steaming pile known as 23 Blast is an inspirational story about high school football star Travis Freeman (Mark Hapka), who gets some type of vague eye infection and suddenly he's blind. But rather then letting Travis focus his time on doing blind stuff, his former coach (Stephen Lang) thinks he should come back to the team — mostly for the vibe, since he's such a natural leader — and play center, since all that requires is snapping the ball and getting all handsy with the guy in front of him. And weirdly enough, it actually seemed to work.

Since this movie is based on a true story, I'm not here to argue the facts, or even question the coach's decision to bring Travis back on the team. What I will focus on is how shitty this movie is, from its direction by actor Dylan Baker (who plays Travis' dopey dad) to the hidden faith-based messages that are sprinkled throughout, including a groan-worthy cameo by the real Travis Freeman, who is now a minister. The sloppy way the director plants his camera and doesn't move it for days and his allowing certain actors (most noticeably Timothy Busfield, hamming it up the school principal as if Boss Hog was playing him) to run roughshod with their performances has convinced me that Baker shouldn't be directing traffic let along a film. Jokes fall flat with alarming regularity while the drama simply doesn't exist in a film that should have it to spare.

A subplot involving Travis' best friend Jerry Baker (Bram Hoover), who's a bit of a trouble maker and seems to be that way to get attention, is moronic. "I'm your best friend, but I hate living in your shadow, especially now that you're blind." I don't even know where to begin. Unless I was dreaming it, I also believe screenwriters Bram and Toni Hoover included a line in which Travis asks his doctor, "What do you mean I'm blind?" to which the doctor replies, "It means you're eyes don't work." A line like that belongs in Airplane!, not in a sports drama.

From the pacing to the acting to the writing to the catering, nothing about 23 Blast works even a little bit. I'm baffled that it's getting a theatrical release at all. I can maybe see it landing on the discount rack at your local bible college book store in a few weeks, but do your best to stay far away from this one or anyone you spot going into see it. There's probably something wrong with their brains. Ugh, take me away from this mess.

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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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