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Column Fri Nov 14 2014

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

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Dumb and Dumber To


There's nothing quite like watching actors reprise roles that they did 20 years ago, and still manage to capture some of what made those performances so special and memorable. It makes you think about the person you were 20 years ago (assuming you were even born in 1995, when Dumb and Dumber was released), about the bright future you saw for yourself, your dreams, your aspirations, the experiences you had so long ago, and the ones you were so looking forward to having. Actually, none of those thoughts entered my head as I was watching Dumb and Dumber To, the sometimes funny-sometimes excruciating exercise in nostalgia baiting in the 21st century.

From a screenplay by modern-day comedy whiz kids Sean Anders and John Morris (writers of Horrible Bosses 2, We're the Millers, Hot Tub Time Machine, Sex Drive), the film brings back Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as two of their most successful on-screen characters, Lloyd Chistmas and Harry Dunne, off on another road trip adventure, this time to locate the daughter that Harry just discovered he sired years earlier with Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner, who is treated so cruelly here that you almost can't help but giggle) and whom she gave up for adoption to a wealthy family.

Reviewing comedies is the hardest part of my job, because maybe more than any other film genre, people's personal tastes either connect with or are repulsed by various types of humor. There are a handful of films by directors Peter and Bobby Farrelly (who return for this sequel) that I positively cherish for their smarts as well as their ability to make me dry heave. Dumb and Dumber was always a film that I enjoyed but never worshiped the way I do some of the Farrellys' other work. So I'm guessing that if you truly love the first film, you'll be primed to laugh a lot at this one; if you ambivalent about the original, it's more of a crap shoot.

For the most part, the new film abandons the idea in the original of finding new way to place Harry and Lloyd in a space with normal folks, and watching the two worlds collide. In this film, the boys seem to be thrown in with other weirdos, so they don't stand out quite as much. Even the lovely Rachel Melvin's portrayal of Harry's alleged daughter Penny is done to make her seem like a chip off the old blockhead. She's actually quite charming and funny, and one of the few true highlights of the supporting cast. And then we get characters like those played by Rob Riggle and Laurie Holden, who don't stray too far off the both of the familiar in terms of their performances and rarely deliver big laughs at any point.

The danger of revisiting characters from the past is that we often find we have idealized them, but Lloyd and Harry are pretty much unchanged. They might actually be a little wiser, a little less innocent, but somehow they have managed to get even more annoying and vicious in their prank pulling. I don't think I'm ruining anything by saying there's a brief moment in the film where Lloyd believes that Penny might actually be his daughter, and he switches from potential love interest (at least in his eyes) to overprotective father in the blink of an eye, and it's one of my favorite moments in Dumb and Dumber To. I don't think that's a scene Carrey or Lloyd could have pulled off 20 years ago, and it's not even that funny a scene, but there are a few seconds of brilliance that only decades of practice could achieve.

Dumb and Dumber To isn't any more awful than the first film. I know I laughed at about 50 percent of the big jokes, which isn't a failing grade by my scale, but it's not overwhelming either. There are just enough truly obscure references to keep you interested and enough laughs to keep you awake, so I guess that's a reserved recommendation. And odds are you already know if you're going to see it or not, so why are you reading this, you dope?

The Theory of Everything

If you skip seeing the Stephen and Jane Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything because you think it's too Oscar bait-ish, you're an idiot. He's another crazy idea to consider: the film from Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire, Project Nim) is one of the most adult love stories I've seen in recent memory, it features incredible acting from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and it's a film that celebrates living life in defiance of the odds in a positively infectious way. Those are all very good reasons to see any movie.

Let's talk about Redmayne for a moment. I've never really been a fan of his work, with one or two exceptions, especially what he did in My Week with Marilyn. But as the young Stephen Hawking in the earliest years of seeing the outward manifestation of his ALS diagnosis, he doesn't just get the facial expressions, voice and contorted body positioning right; he absolutely exudes humor, charm and intelligence through Hawking's actively breaking down body, in a way that is almost impossible to put into words — it must be witnessed to believe.

The scenes of the couple's early years at Cambridge are sweet and nerdy and are captured in a type of whirlwind visual style that captures young love quite beautifully. Jones (best known for Like Crazy and The Invisible Woman) is particularly good in these moments, and the fact that the film is based primarily on Jane's memoir Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen is a good sign that this isn't some puff piece meant to glorify Hawking as one of the world's great thinkers (which he certainly is). (Of course, the filmmakers did have the option of adapting Jane's nastier memoir from 10 years earlier, Music to Move the Stars.) What the film actually does is capture the largely unknown years in their marriage where Hawking was still a rising star, and the couple had a few kids and a nice household. It's not an image of Stephen that one considers, but director Marsh covers it respectfully and quite naturally.

The second half of The Theory of Everything finds the Hawkings becoming distant from each other, especially when Stephen starts flirting with his nurse Elaine (Maxine Peake), who later became the second Mrs. Hawking, while Jane found herself attracted to one of the couple's oldest friends, Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox, soon to be the new Daredevil). Their split (seemingly as friends) is so British that it almost misses the fact that both are heartbroken about it, but lest anyone think that the subject is avoided, it most definitely is not.

Nor should you think that the film doesn't at least attempt to explain a few of Hawking's most famous theories about the way the universe works. Most of these scenes involve his mentor and Cambridge professor Dennis Sciama (played quite enthusiastically by David Thewlis), and it's certainly enjoyable and inspirational to see Hawking's mind continue to thrive throughout the course of his affliction. But Sciama's other role is to get Hawking to sound out his theories so that we, the audience, have the slimmest chance of understanding them.

But the most heartfelt and stirring moments in The Theory of Everything occur between Stephen and Jane, and they specifically happen when we realize how much they are like so many other young couples in love. She's a religious woman; he is less certain about where he stands on the God issue; and like all mixed marriages, they debate God's place in science. There's no sense that Jane isn't struggling almost every day as Stephen primary caregiver, as well as being a mother to their brood, and the film pays tribute to her as it should.

At its core, The Theory of Everything is about marking the passage of time, something Hawking has always been keen on studying. In many ways, we note time passing in this story by observing Hawking's body collapse in on itself, but it's not meant to be a mourning process; it just happens, and if he can deal with the repercussions, then what's our excuse? The work is a classic "you'll laugh, you'll cry" experience, but mostly you'll learn and count yourself impressed. The film opens in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Theory of Everything star Eddie Redmayne, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Rosewater

There are a couple of films opening in the coming weeks that I can't get out of my head, and it's not just because they're great works. They have embedded themselves in my consciousness and showed me experiences that I never imagined I'd ever see. One of the films I'm talking about is Foxcatcher, which I'll review when it opens wide next week. And the other is Rosewater, the feature writing-directing debut from Jon Stewart, the host and executive producer of "The Daily Show." The story behind the making of the film is nearly as intriguing as the story itself, but in a strange cyclical way, the two are connected.

The film tells the remarkable tale of an Iranian-born Canadian citizen living in London, journalist Maziar Bahari (played in the film by Gael Garcia Bernal of The Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mama Tambien), who was incarcerated for about four months, partly because he was accused of being an American spy after a "Daily Show" correspondent interviewed him in Iran during the controversial 2009 presidential election for a segment on the show. The film's primarily locations are a series of neutral-colored walls designed to result in sensory deprivation and take its toll on the mind of the captive.

While the interrogation scenes are both psychologically and sometimes physically brutal to witness, Stewart (basing his screenplay on Bahari's memoir, Then They Came for Me) gives us insight into how this man — kept away from his very pregnant wife (Claire Foy) back in London — managed to maintain his sanity. We witness imaginary conversations between Bahari and his long-dead father and sister, both of whom were political prisoners under various Iranian leaders years earlier; they fortify Bahari, along with the memory of music by Leonard Cohen and other famous faces.

Perhaps almost as remarkable is the way they portray the primary interrogator (known only as "Rosewater" and played by Kim Bodnia), a ruthless man when he's told to be, and something of a compassionate creature when allowed to be. There's a very amusing sequence in which Rosewater hits upon a taboo subject with Bahari, and as soon as Bahari realizes he's struck a nerve, he starts invents risqué stories to keep the interrogator transfixed, marking the first time the prisoner has regained a small amount of power in this hopeless situation.

Rosewater also skillfully marks the process of destroying someone's hope that the world outside hasn't forgotten them. The Revolutionary Guard that runs the prison tells Bahari a lot of lies while he's under their watch, but the only one that slips into his brain is the belief that no one is looking for him. When he's given his first sign that this may not be true, it might be the single most joyous moment in the film.

The inherent drama in Rosewater is not about whether Bahari survives his ordeal (you all know he does; he wrote a damn book and has been on a gangbuster press tour for weeks); it's about the way he survived using the strength of his family both dead and living (including his spirited mother, played by the great Shohreh Aghdashloo), as well as thoughts of his own brood back in the UK. It's a moving and quite intimate journey, with wonderfully subversive streak running through it that often takes the guise of humor, but is sometimes just a statement about ridiculous government agendas. The film is a tremendous, yet humbling achievement, and I'm curious how long it sticks with you. Rosewater opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Rosewater writer-director Jon Stewart and subject Maziar Bahari.

The Better Angels

If you didn't know that first-time writer-director A.J. Edwards was a Terrence Malick protégé going into his film The Better Angels, you'd be an idiot if you didn't by the end (by the way, Malick is a producer on this movie). Actually, if you haven't figured it out after about 20 minutes, you probably haven't seen a Malick movie. On the page, The Better Angels is the story of Abraham Lincoln's miserable yet formative childhood, growing up in the stark, unforgiving woods of Indiana in the early 1800s. Since Edwards was an editor of two Malick films (To the Wonder and one that is unreleased), not surprisingly he's learned a thing or two about how to shoot a Malick-like work, complete with lots of nature shots, people's backs as they run through fields of high produce (in this case, corn), and using a variety of narrators to describe the action and state of mind of the characters. It's all there, folks. It's almost as if Edwards said to himself, "A.J., if my mentor Terrence won't let out one of his films to the world, I'll do it for him."

I'm joking, and I certainly don't mean to imply that The Better Angels isn't a gorgeously shot, black-and-white effort with a few truly harrowing moments in young Abe's (Braydon Denney) life that shaped the his worldview, but it's also a movie that attempts to perfectly mimic a Terrence Malick film, and I know that's going to bug the crap out of a lot of people, as it probably should. The film is about the crucial time in Abraham's world when his mother Nancy (Brit Marling) dies young, leaving his gruff father Tom (Jason Clarke) to fend for himself and their children. Before long, Tom leaves their modest farm for a few weeks and brings back a new wife, Sarah (Diane Kruger), a young widow with kids of her own.

Edwards seems quite keen on capturing the history of the time and place, from the dilapidated cabin in which the Lincolns lived to the rudimentary plow they used to till their small plot of land. You absolutely get a sense of the upbringing that shaped one of our most influential presidents, in particular the luck he was handed by having two strong, caring women in his life who saw something special in the way he saw the world. Unfortunately, some of these great moments and details are lost because of the obtuse way the film is shot. The way that Marling and Kruger run around the tall grass with young Abe and the other children is so much like images from Malick's The Tree of Life that it almost feels like parody.

The Better Angels also suffers from a case of knowing what's coming next. Since we know where this whole life story goes and how it ends, it's easy to spot when other characters' narration and dialogue gets a bit too "He's going to be something special when he grows up" or "He's got a gift." The most irritating moment comes when Lincoln is strolling through the woods and crosses paths with slave traders marching a line of chained-up slaves near the farm, as young Abe looks upon the scene with great disappointment. Give me a break. As I said, the movie has its visually striking and dramatically compelling moments, but the overall execution is so distracting that the work feels like a perfectly made reproduction, void of honesty and humility. If you're a die-hard Malick admirer, you could just as easily find yourself in heaven or hell, depending on how hard up you are to see anything Malick-related. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Overnighters

One of the more impressive documentaries out of this year's Sundance Film Festival (where it won the Special Jury Prize) is director Jesse Moss' The Overnighters, a film that begins as something of a call-to-action piece about Jay Reinke, a North Dakota Lutheran pastor who allows the homeless to stay in his church, against the wishes of the City Council and his parishioners. The small town also happens to be at the center of a newly instigated fracking program, so many of the homeless are looking for work in the oil-rich community.

Neighbors and other members of the oil-rich community consider such a large concentration of homeless men to be a threat to their safety, and while they are clearly made out to be the overreactive bad guys to this man of God trying to deal with the byproduct of a greedy industry and even greedier community, an 11th-hour reveal about the pastor completely changes our perception of everything that has come before. It is somewhat unsettling when the Reinke invites an ex-con to come live in his house with his family, but that man turns out to be the least of his problems and ultimately his biggest threat, but not in ways you might anticipate.

For most of the film, Moss (Full Battle Rattle) focuses on the struggle Reinke goes through on an almost daily basis trying to make his church a place of shelter. We meet the individuals and families, all of whom came to town to pursue elusive work, and their lives have been a succession of heartbreaks and disappointments, so it should come as no surprise when any show of favoritism by Reinke is met with anger and destructive impulses.

The Overnighters is a terrific document of this local issue that is becoming a nationwide concern as the fracking industry continues to grow, but it's not a film about fracking or big corporations moving into small towns. This is a film that reminds us that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator, not even in a documentary. It also pushes and strains our definitions of good and bad, safe and dangerous, persuasion and manipulation. Reinke infuses his sermons with themes of personal struggles and spiritual crisis, and while we assume for most of the movie that he's speaking in the abstract, finding out the truth of his life isn't as shocking as it should be. I consider this a must-see film, but at the same time, brace yourself. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Director Jesse Moss will be present via Skype for audience Q&A after the Friday, Nov. 14, 8pm screening.

Altman

It seems an almost impossible task to condense the entire life and career of master filmmaker Robert Altman into a 90-plus-minute documentary. That said, director Ron Mann (Grass, Comic Book Confidential, Tales of the Rat Fink) has done a modestly successful job of it in Altman, which blazes through the directors extensive career in television and film, hitting most of the highlights and even getting a sense of what made Robert Altman such a great film innovator.

For the most part, Mann lets Altman's family (in particular, his now-late wife Kathryn Reed and their surviving children) do most of the walking through the director's life. And while the documentary is packed with famous faces, they are only on hand to answer one question: "What is Altman-esque?" Acting as chapter stops, Mann has lined up the likes of Robin Williams, Julianne Moore, Bruce Willis, Paul Thomas Anderson, James Caan, Keith Carradine, Elliott Gould, Lily Tomlin, Philip Baker Hall, Sally Kellerman, Lyle Lovett, and Michael Murphy to deliver short — sometimes one-word — answers to that query ...but somehow it works.

Using archival interviews with Altman himself, as well as a few that appear to have been done just before his 2006 death, Mann turns Altman into an all-inclusive sketch that reaches across the decades, through all of the forgettable TV dramas he made to some of the most essential film works of the 20th century. And it doesn't always feels like Mann is skimming the surface; he manages to highlight the key devices in Altman's storytelling toolbox and spend time with the works that require it. Hell, he even dives into Altman's long-lost, barely released 1980 film HealtH.

In a strange way, Mann's film feels like a solid outline for a much longer piece — maybe a two-parter for PBS's "American Masters," but as it is, it still gets the job done. Those who don't know Altman's career inside and out will probably learn a thing or two, while those of us with more intimate knowledge will enjoy rediscovering some of his more obscure works. I'm not sure this version of the Robert Altman story is worth seeing on the big screen (the Epix channel ran the film earlier this year), but it is worth checking out as either a primer or refresher on the singular splendor of Altman.

Altman will be playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Nov. 15 at 7:45pm; Sunday, Nov. 16 at 3pm; and Thursday, Nov. 20 at 6pm. Also included in the program are three never-released short films by Altman: The Kathryn Reed Story (1965, 15 min.), Pot au feu (1965, 9 min.), and The Party (1966, 3 min.).

The Invisible Front

It is something of a challenge to tell a story about little-known historical events with no major players or famous names and still make in intriguing and captivating, but for the most part co-directors Jonas Ohman and Vincas Sruoginis are able to convey the struggle of the Lithuanian resistance during Soviet occupation during and after World War II. The title of this documentary, The Invisible Front, is taken from the code name used by the Soviets for these freedom fighters in occupied territories, and somehow this movement stayed alive, in actuality and spirit, for decades, until the Iron Curtain came down and the Soviet Union collapsed.

The film actually has the makings of a great feature film: there's a stand-out heroic figure, Juozas Luksa; his band of fighting comrades, known as the Forest Brothers; a woman he falls in love with and marries in Paris, where he goes in 1947 to attempt to get the support of Western nations; and a one-time close friend, who becomes a turncoat for the Soviets. It's a strangely captivating story, told a bit dryly, but it still makes for an interesting footnote in the story of the Cold War.

What is most interesting about The Invisible Front is its detailed account of the many manifestations of a political resistance — armed and unarmed — and the ways that the spirit of such a movement can be kept alive for decades, ready to be brought back to fighting strength at a moment's notice. Many of those interviewed for the documentary have since passed on, so the fact that these testimonials (including something of a confession by the turncoat) even exist is something of a miracle.

The volume of archival footage is impressive, and the recitations from Luksa's memoir about the birth of the Forest Brothers captures the passion of the Lithuanian people. Stories are sometimes allowed to go on for too long, as if to prove there's something here with talking about, and that isn't necessarily. It's pretty clear these events and freedom fighters were the real deal and have earned their place in the history books. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Bad Turn Worse

When a film wears its influences on its sleeve, it can be a hit-or-miss proposition. In the case of Bad Turn Worse (which was on the festival circuit for a time under the name We Gotta Get Out of This Place), the news is mostly good. Set squarely in the cowboy noir world that has been inhabited by everyone from Jim Thompson to the Coen Brothers, this first-time feature from director Simon and Zeke Hawkins (working from a script by Dutch Southern) is about a dim-witted high schooler named BJ (Logan Huffman) who steals a few grand from local thug Giff (and BJ's boss, played by Mark Pellegrino [Capote, The Big Lebowski, Mulholland Drive]), and is caught almost immediately after spending it all on a night or partying with his best friend Bobby (Jeremy Allen White of Showtime's "Shameless") and girlfriend Sue (Mackenzie Davis of AMC's "Halt and Catch Fire") just before they leave him behind to go to college.

To pay off the debut, Giff tells the three to rob a local tannery that is used for money laundering by a much-bigger-time gangster. But in the days leading up to the well-planned heist, BJ begins to have doubts about Sue's fidelity, especially when it comes to Bobby, so he starts to alter the plan in ways that make everyone exceedingly nervous. I suppose the point of the film is to show how non-criminals would make out when thrown into a highly criminal activity, and the results are both amusing and quite nerve-wracking. White is great as the voice of reason and calm in times of trouble; he's also great when it comes to lying to his friend's face. Huffman plays BJ a little too obviously reckless, and as a result, we never really get close enough to him to care if he lives or dies. On the other hand, Davis is about two or three roles away from being a major young player in the acting world. She's a superb performer in everything she does, and here, she embodies a young woman who has known for many years that this Texas cotton-mill town is the last place she wants to live out her life.

Bad Turn Worse is a tightly wound story that is sloppy in most of the right places, although some of the characters are a bit too malleable too soon in the story. Again, Huffman goes from good ol' boy to ticking time bomb a little too quick, but it's about the worst offense the film has in store for us. As directors, the Hawkins have a pretty stable hand on the Texas atmosphere, from the country diners to the vast, darkened barns on some of the small farms that serve as locations. There's just enough right going on in this film to recommend checking it out, but I think the Hawkins have better things in store down the road. Let's hope they don't lose their attention to detail along the way. 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

Read this column »

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