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Column Fri Nov 21 2014

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

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

Easily the best of the young adult series that have proliferated the marketplace since the Twilight movies singed movie screens, The Hunger Games films have actually managed to get better and more harrowing with each new chapter. To wrap up the series, the final book, Mockingjay, has been adapted into two films (the second part will be released in November 2015), and while this may appear to be an already-tired ploy by studios to milk the most out of a franchise (thanks Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hobbit and the upcoming final chapter of the Divergent films!), there actually does seem to a clear dividing line for Mockingjay that isn't exactly a cliffhanger, but the start of something even more devious than the first part hints at.

Now that the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is free from actually having to take part in yet another Hunger Games (they have essentially been done away with forever), and we can enter a new chapter of this civilization divided into realms and controlled by the clearly vindictive President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Katniss is the reluctant hero of and symbol to her people, the underclasses of the nation of Panem, ruled by the newly introduced President Coin (Julianne Moore) and her trust advisor Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last onscreen role — presumably he'll return in Part 2). As the underclass' so-called "Mockingjay," Katniss is asked to be the spokesperson for her people in a series of pirated videos calling for courage and the willingness to fight for freedom from Snow's tyranny.

For reasons I was never quite clear on, it feels like about 85 percent of the dialogue in Mockingjay is forcefully whispered, I guess to seem more dramatic. But aside from that foible, the film is actually quite rousing and fascinating as a blueprint on how to start a revolution. Borrowing heavily (but not knowingly) from Russian propaganda tactics, Katniss travels to bombed-out districts to encourage the troops and get images of her surrounding by smoldering wreckage for these videos. She is torn about being used as a symbol, but when she actually does get to fight and use those bow-and-arrow skills she appears energized and ready for the work ahead, which in her mind includes rescuing her fellow tributes from Snow, including her special friend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).

Mockingjay Part 1 has a great deal of plot to get through, and sometimes that means sacrificing character development. As a result, a parade of familiar faces goes before the camera just to let you know they're still a part of the story. Liam Hemsworth's Gale, Woody Harrelson's Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks' Effie (stripped of her crazy costumes, makeup and hairstyles like a plucked peacock, Jeffrey Wright's Beetee, Jena Malone's Johanna, and Stanley Tucci's Caesar Flickerman all zip in and out of the film, offering up some small piece of plot-forwarding element and then they're gone.

One of most heartening exceptions to this is Hoffman's Plutarch, who along with Moore's President Coin are the primary crafters all most of what Katniss does in this film. Hoffman's in so much of this film and in fine form, as the character who finds a way to be all business, yet capable of injecting humor into most situations. As always, Hoffman made the most of a part that could have easily been a throwaway background character, and the idea of he and Moore re-teaming so many years after Magnolia warmed my heart.

Returning Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) keeps things moving, and there's no sense that he's slowing things down or padding anything to stretch this into two films. There's always a lot going on, the energy is up (even when the voices are whispering), and Jennifer Lawrence is particularly strong as the angst-ridden Catniss who is torn between duty, helping her compromised friends, and having a very difficult time grasping the magnitude of some of the horrible things that the Snow administration is doing to people. At one point near the beginning of the film, you actually see the battleshock leave Catniss' eyes, and the warrior emerge. That's all on Lawrence, and she plays it exactly right.

Not having read these books, I have no idea where the final chapter in this story will take these characters, but it feels like things are going to get worse before they get better. At least I hope so. Where Mockingjay Part 1 leaves off, the revolt has now turned into full-scale war, so that's cool. But I like the sense of pure dread that leaves us wanting more in Part 2, but fearing the "more" could be quite deadly. It's become an intriguing series of films, for sure, and it's allowed Jennifer Lawrence a chance to prove that she's a performer capable of being the focal point of a full-scale action film, in addition to her proven abilities in the dramatic arena. She's the real deal, and I'm always eager to see what she's got for us next.

Foxcatcher

As with all of director Bennett Miller's three features (including his first two, Capote and Moneyball), his latest, Foxcatcher, is a prime example of how truly great films can be looked at in two distinct ways: we can look at what happens in the film, and we can look deeper to see what the film is really about. It's particularly evident that Miller isn't interested in simply re-creating the events surrounding wrestlers/brothers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively) and billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell); Miller is determined to relive them in all of their twisted, ugly and haltingly captivating glory.

Miller's works have all been so uniquely American, but rarely has he captured the absolute truth about the delusional patriotism that infects so many of us from the desperately poor to the obscenely rich. Through Carell's haunting portrayal of the wealthy heir to the du Pont family fortune, as well as it's long, esteemed lineage, Miller and his writers, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, give us a complete package of an isolated man, who wants to connect with the commoners (in this case, a group of Olympics-bound wrestlers training at his massive estate), while still wanting to be acknowledged as their better, elder, father figure.

When the light captures du Point in a certain way — his enormous, beak-like nose, his slightly pronounced middle-front teeth) — he looks remarkably like Count Orlok from Nosferatu, and it is in those very intentional (I believe) moments when we're looking into the man's true soul. He is empty, lonely, fatherless, under the ever-watchful eye of his elitist mother (Vanessa Redgrave), who looks upon John's beloved wrestling as a "low sport." The sad truth about John du Pont is that he is a man with no talents and nothing to offer with the one exception of his money, which he was generous with, but he also used it for ridiculous purchases like a full-size tank or the training facility that serves as the focal point of this story.

Part of his definition of being a patriot is being a winner in sports, and since John is too old and not talented enough to earn medals in the Olympics himself, he essentially hires the best wrestlers from around the nation and brings them to his Foxcatcher estate. Enter: Mark Schultz, another fatherless man, who grew up with older brother and fellow gold medal-winning wrestler Dave, a sweet and generous man, on top of being a fantastic wrestling coach. But Mark is a socially awkward man, who feels like he's been living in his brother's shadow his entire life. So when du Pont approaches him (and not Dave initially) about moving to the ranch and putting together a wrestling team to shine at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, he jumps at the chance to shine brightly in the light of his own fire.

I've always believed Tatum to be a much better actor than most give him credit for, but his work in Foxcatcher is otherworldly — his version of Mark is angry, frustrated, desperate and in great need of his brother's guidance, even when he refuses to admit that. And under the probing eyes of John du Pont, Mark is pushed to places he knows he shouldn't go. He loses his center, his core, his stabilizing force. There are no worse moments in the film than the ones where the brothers aren't getting along. There's a moment early in the film where we first see the Schultz brothers sparring together as part of their training; there is no dialogue, just a type of aggressive, brutal dance that occurs between them in a way that could only happen between two people who know each other's physical and emotional limits. Dave can sense that on this day Mark is upset just from the way he spars, the way he swings his arms, the noises he makes, the ferocity in his eyes. It's a scary and fascinating exchange that tells us all we need to know about these brothers without a word passing between them.

Even in du Pont's lighter, eccentric, even funny moments, we spot his darker side. A drunken celebratory party among the wrestlers and "Coach" du Pont ends with John tackling some of his charges and pinning them to the ground the way a parent would pretend fall to the ground after being tackled by their child. There's a dark, sometimes sickening humor that runs through Foxcatcher that may be the most difficult tone of the film for audiences to embrace. But if they do, the rewards are rich and twisted — much like du Pont himself.

I've seen Foxcatcher twice now, and each time I noticed such different things about every aspect of the story, from the depths of the betrayal and corruption to the layers of familial bonds — real, imagined, and desired. The first time I saw it, it left me impressed with the performances but cold in my soul; the second time, the emotional content of the film leapt out at me, especially through Ruffalo's soulful performance, in the way the protective Dave never wanted to make an enemy; he might not have anything nice to say about you, but he'll be damned if that means he's going to say something nasty. Man, is Ruffalo good here, and if he's doing his job well, you won't even notice.

Foxcatcher is the ultimate, slow-spinning, downward spiral, surrounded by smaller spirals going in every direction. That are moments of absolute triumph in the brothers' lives. When they work in tandem, they are virtually unstoppable. But when they are apart, something is missing. There's no need to talk about the end of the film. You either know where it's going or you don't; either way, the ending is both shocking and inevitable, but I don't think it will change your feeling on the film as a whole.

Director Miller chooses to end Foxcatcher with a rather bittersweet postscript, verifying what we already knew — no one got out of this situation better for the experience, and there's no reason to let us think otherwise. Although it doesn't happen often, it is possible for a masterpiece to leave you feeling empty and chilled to the bone; you may even hate the feeling. But if that is, to a degree, exactly the feeling the filmmaker wanted to instill in you, maybe the film worked. Do me a favor if you walk out of Foxcatcher not sure how you felt about it — see it one more time a couple weeks later. It's a different experience when you can actually focus on the subtext and not get pleasantly distracted by the flawless, transformative makeup and mannerisms surrounding the performances. Foxcatcher is a layered, death-defying journey into the misguided minds of lost American souls. In other words, it's about a lot of us. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Homesman

Two thoughts were going through my head concurrently while watching the second film directed by the great actor Tommy Lee Jones (after The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada): "How the hell did this film get made?" and "Thank god it did." In this work set along the fringes of the American frontier, The Homesman (in which Jones also stars and co-wrote) actually begins as the story of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank), a single, independent woman (most men call her "bossy") living alone in the Nebraska Territory but building up a solid bit of money on her stretch of land and somewhat eager to find a man who will marry her in her advanced age.

Mary is also a church-going woman who has agreed to transport three mentally ill women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) in her community across a dangerous stretch of the country to Iowa, where a minister and his wife (Meryl Streep) plan to care for the poor unfortunates who have all been driven varying degrees of insane by very nature of the way they must live. Jones provides a few choice, rather unsavory scenes showing examples of the dangerous behavior these women have displayed, and maybe all they really need is to get the hell out of the frontier.

Just as she's beginning her trip, Mary stumbles upon George Briggs (Jones), a drifter who seems to go from empty house to empty house seeking shelter and anything he can steal to survive. Mary takes pity on him and offers her a great deal of money to be her escort. With the three patients in a fortified, prison-like wagon, the five head off east into the not-so-great unknown. The threats are many and quite real, and Jones is well aware of every trick in the book as to how they must be dealt with.

At its core, The Homesman is a road film with a few extra colorful characters to make the trip just a little more interesting. Jones has pretty much cornered the market on his brand of ornery, and he has it turned all the way up to play Briggs. He's also clearly a stickler for authenticity of both the setting and the means at their disposal in terms of what resources would be available to them as they traveled on their five- to six-week journey during a nasty cold snap. He's also perfectly captured just how poorly women of the time (especially unmarried ones) were regarded by most men. Thankfully, the film does not turn into a love story, which does not mean that Briggs and Mary don't bond in other ways along the way.

It seems like every day of the trip offers up some new obstacle or problem. The three women seem to take turns causing problems ranging from not eating to running away to biting and just being generally disruptive. Add to that roving bands of Native American, bandits, the aforementioned brutal weather and the constant threat of starvation, and you've got a heck of a vacation. The film takes a genuinely unexpected turn in its final third (which I won't ruin for you), and what follows that singular moment elevates the story and the entire film in ways I truly did not see coming.

I feel like some people don't like Hilary Swank as a rule, probably because it seems somehow unfair that she won two Best Actress Oscars (richly deserved for Boys Don't Cry and Million Dollar Baby) so early in her career. Or maybe it's because the films she made in between her celebrated roles were such crap. But The Homesman offers a performance from Swank that is among her finest. In a single moment, she is able to go from tough to demure to "bossy" to completely vulnerable. It's a measured and beautifully nuanced effort that reminds us some accolades are wholly earned and warranted.

Jones' direction is not surprisingly subtle and simple, but his preference for stark vistas and harsh lands taking their toll on human beings packs a nasty wallop. You feel every step these travelers take, the chill in their bones belongs to you as well, and at times you even fully enter the minds of these poor women driven to insanity by cruel lands, cruel men and a cruel God. I fully acknowledge that those of you who like to spend your hard-earned cash on films that make you feel good might not be drawn to The Homesman, but if you that rare breed that just plain old likes well-made films that stray (literally and figuratively) from the well-worn path of movie making, you may have reached your destination. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Force Majeure

Way too many people get bent out of shape about films that are all over the place in terms of tone. You need to get over that shit right now. Tonal shifts can take an average film and make it more interesting, or take something interesting and make it something brilliant. Case in point, Force Majeure, Sweden's entry for an Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and the winner of the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes earlier this year. Writer-director Rubin Östlund (Play) has fashioned a family drama that is also wickedly — bordering on uncomfortably — funny at the expense of what starts out as a fairly loving marriage.

Married couple Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two young children are on a winter holiday in the French Alps, where a whole lot of skiing is the order of the day. In order to cut down on the risk of avalanches, the facility has a series of controlled avalanches throughout each day, one of which occurs while this picture-perfect Swedish family is sitting on a terrance for lunch. When it appears a wall of snow is about to wipe out everyone at the restaurant, Tomas grabs his phone and runs, leaving the missus and kiddies behind. And for the rest of the film, Ebba needles Tomas about his actions, which he at first denies even happened, but then he slowly begins to realize that his cowardly, selfish actions have triggered an avalanche in his marriage from which the family may not survive.

So how is this a comedy? Well, the occasions the Ebba chooses to bring up the incident are quite inappropriate — among dinner or drinks with newfound acquaintances. Often, these strangers react in ways that actually make the situation worse, if that's possible. Even the children sense that their father is losing his grip on being the head of the household. The truth is that the incident was an instinctual blunder, but it's certainly not worth the torture Ebba is putting her husband through, and there's something of a postscript to the film involving the bus ride back down the mountain at the end of the vacation that seems to confirm that her response to his misdeed rapidly descended into an overreaction. But my firm belief is that who you side with in this battle will depend on what you bring in with you into the film and the opinion you hold about the sociology of sex roles in a relationship.

The term "force majeure" is actually a legal expression that essentially means "an act of God" that prevents one or both parties from fulfilling their obligations, so you have some sense of how perfect the title of this film is. Should we be judged by our actions in times of crisis or panic? Or are those the perfect times to judge a person's true character? Force Majeure, the film, gives us no easy answers, but provides us with a eye-opening account of how one couple manages to work through such a flash crisis of confidence and attempt to restore faith in what they've built. I wouldn't go so far as to call it inspirational, but it is gripping viewing nonetheless. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

America the Beautiful 3: The Sexualization of Our Youth

Writer-director-producer Darryl Roberts has often been criticized about his now-three-part America the Beautiful documentary series for being loose on structure, and I'm not here to say those observations are wrong. But as a great lover of the art form, I actually get a kick out of docs that let the subject lead us through the narrative rather than the filmmaker forcing us down a particular, unwavering path. For example, 2003's Capturing the Friedmans began life as a documentary short about birthday party clowns and turned into one of the greatest docs of the last 20 years. It's clear that Roberts enters into each new America the Beautiful film with a rough idea of avenues he'd like to pursue, but he always leaves a side door open for unexpected journeys, sometimes down some rather unsavory roads.

After a first film about this country's obsessions with beauty and celebrity founded on looks, and a second film that zeroed in on the nation's obsession with weight and dangerous dieting practices, Roberts is entering the sordid land of the way everyone from parents to big business to the media has found way to sexualize underage children in everything from beauty pageants to ad campaigns. And while the director (who also acts as narrator and on-screen interviewer) goes through the statistics on how men view and treat women, reports from psychologists, and testimonials from young men who talk about being exposed to porn in their pre-teen years, it's the unexpected moments in this third America the Beautiful film that are the best.

Roberts has two female interns working for him. One is so angered by the ad campaigns of Abercrombie and Fitch and the hurtful words from the company's CEO about only "cool kids" should wear their clothes that she organized a protest against the company, charging them with bullying. The company's response to her might have been a PR ploy, but it also happened to be a genuinely helpful anti-bullying tool. Roberts' other intern left the production offices earlier than expected for reasons I won't say, but it is a prime example that sexual harassment can rear its ugly head under any roof.

Roberts ties the subjects of sexual harassment, misogyny, child sexualization, etc., together under a massive umbrella of bad behaviors stemming from a systemic immersion at a young age in images and messages from all areas of mass and social media that say these behaviors are the norm. And while this isn't exactly new ground being broken, these new examples of them in the film are often shocking. At worst, this third (and supposedly final, for now) chapter of the America the Beautiful is a messy account of real behaviors; at best, it's a conversation starter of the highest order about some very important and disturbing subjects. If you feel like being challenged, you may want to take a crack at this though-provoking doc.

National Gallery

People sometimes treat watching one of director Frederick Wiseman's documentaries like it's some kind of endurance test. His films often run upwards of three hours, and you're actually forced to pay attention because he doesn't use title cards, narrators, interviews, or anything conventional that we're used to being spoon fed in order to understand the subject. Instead, Wiseman approximates life. More specifically, he drops us fly-on-the-wall style into a place, allows us to inhabit the space in its every aspect, and by the end of the extended running time, after watching and listening to people who actually do live and work in said location, you feel like you do as well.

On the surface, Wiseman's process probably seems almost too simple to be considered great art. In fact, it's exceedingly tough to select just the right moments to string together to approximate a complete experience. His latest work, National Gallery, allows us to feel like we work in London's famed museum, stocked with 2400 paintings from the last 700-800 years. In addition to the more obvious opportunity of listening in on various tour guides and art experts talking to groups about individual paintings or artists, Wiseman allows us to observe and hear about art preservation, education (a pair of drawing classes, complete with nude models, are actually quite amusing), heritage, research and conservation. From staff meetings discussing budgets to a fantastic lesson in the science of restoring a Rembrandt, every corner of that gallery is visited.

And when all is said and done, there are overall themes that emerge, as well as "characters" who we see in various settings. The struggle of any museum of the size and prestige of the National Gallery is to make the old masters relevant to the lives of modern audiences, while not aiming to appeal to the "lowest-common denominator," as one administrator points out. At the same time, the thing that always connects the public (whether day-to-day visitors or high-end financial supporters on a private preview tour) with the art are the stories — background on the artist and the times in which he/she lived and created; the myth, fable or historical event being portrayed in the painting itself; or even the tale of how the piece was acquired by the gallery in the first place.

And much like any place your may frequent in your own life, you start to single out favorites, whether they be tour guides or wings of the gallery or special exhibits or even patrons. Wiseman is clearly enamored with the collection in the National Gallery and shoots each piece of art lovingly, holding each image long enough for our eyes to search the painting for interesting details. National Gallery is one of the director's better recent works simply because it feels like it's a location he's moved by, rather than just one he's attempting to capture for an audience's benefit. As with nearly all of Wiseman's films, this one is well worth seeking out. But his passion for the subject makes it all the more vital to his body of work. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Read Nancy Bishop's review of National Gallery.

Miss Meadows

I'm not a fan of characters who act overly prim and proper for comedic effect; it feels condescending and so rarely works as a device. In the end, it usually results in something that appears to be overacting, when it's really an issue of being overwritten and not at all funny, primarily because people like that don't live and function in the real world. That being said, I'd never seen Katie Holmes try on such a persona before Miss Meadows, about a woman who places manners above all things, and refusal to do the same could lead to your death.

We don't know much about Miss Meadows for quite some time in the film (I just realized that I don't think we ever learn her first name). She's carries a small gun in her purse, she dresses a little too stylishly for both the town she has recently moved to and her job as a substitute elementary school teacher. Initially we can almost forgive her vigilante-style killings because these people are somehow a threat, but at one point, I'm pretty sure she kills the innocent teacher she's filling in for just to get her job permanently. She wears taps on her shoes all the time, and seems unusually attached to her mother (Jean Smart), whom she talks with on the phone with an alarming regularity. Holmes effectively sells this character by not just being bubbly, pretty, sweet and well-mannered, but by also giving us a fully functional human being, even when her etiquette is under constant attack.

More importantly, Holmes is smart enough to play Miss Meadows with her instability peaking through her lace-curtained facade. She's a righter of wrong, so it makes sense that she takes a romantic interest in the local sheriff (James Badge Dale), who suspects fairly early in their relationship that something is not quite right with his lady love. Writer-director Karen Leigh Hopkins (best known as the writer of works such as Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, Stepmom and Because I Said So) presents the sheriff with a moral dilemma: he suspects that Miss Meadows is a killer of bad people, but he also is in love with her (coupled with the fact that he knocks her up almost as soon as they start sleeping together).

Miss Meadows is a bit too deliberately quirky and uneven to pass as sophisticated satire or a successful dark comedy, but there are hints of something great, both in Holmes' carefully realized acting and the pained way she attempts to withdraw from her path of death for the love of someone a bit more stabilizing than other influences in her life. It's good to see Holmes back on her game (nope, sorry, her small uninspired role in The Giver didn't quite do it for me), and I hope it's a sign of things to come from her. She displays a range that goes from delicate to deadly in a flash, and does so in a convincing way in the context of this admittedly outlandish story. I wouldn't cross state lines to seek out a theater playing Miss Meadows, but if there's one near you, it's worth a look. 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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