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Column Fri Dec 05 2014

Wild, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Antarctica: A Year on Ice, Panic 5 Bravo & Bad Hair



Reese Witherspoon has had a hell of a year. She produced the massively popular and exceedingly well made Gone Girl, she co-starred in The Good Lie, a sadly overlooked docudrama that came out earlier this year, and she has a juicy role in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest, Inherent Vice. But more than likely, the 2014 film the Oscar winner be remembered for most is Wild, from director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed about her life-affirming (and -threatening) 1000-plus-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, completely alone with no training or preparation of any kind.

Strayed's life leading up to her journey was not a good one. She threw a grenade into her marriage with a nasty heroin addiction and a reckless string of men with whom she cheated on her husband. She also endured the cancer death of mother Bobbi (an absolutely radiant Laura Dern), whose unwarranted positive attitude toward life infected her daughter and son with both passion and a stinging sense of the evil in the world, no matter how good you are.

Wild is told in a non-linear fashion, with Strayed's walk serving as the constant thread, while her mind wanders to various events in her tattered life. Certainly things happen on the walk that snap her thoughts back to the here and now, usually involving running into a fellow traveller, a threatening local, or a severe injury (usually involving bleeding feet). But it's Strayed's fractured past that has put her on this path, and the glimpses into her whirlwind recent history are often painful, often difficult to watch. Dern is the heart and soul of the film, and it's likely Bobbi was some form of manic-depressive, which is genuinely terrifying to behold in Dern's performance. When she's on screen, the film is elevated beyond Vallée's direction and a keen screenplay by author Nick Hornby (An Education).

But the real revelation here is Witherspoon, who gives a performance that is neck deep in waters she's simply never wandered into prior to this. She doesn't hold back when it comes to showing us Strayed's dabbling into sex and drugs, and I'm sure most writers will focus on that aspect of the film. But the key to her acting here is an underlying rage that starts to appear when it becomes clear that Bobbi is near death. The transformation is so noticeable, you almost think you're watching a new, undiscovered actor making an unforgettable debut. But there's also something familiar in the way she plays Strayed — confident but vulnerable, strong but afraid she's actually weak. It's a nuanced performance that I won't soon forget.

Wild is one of a small handful of films of late that has been about people going on a modern-day walkabout to find themselves, clear their heads and just generally hit reset on their swirling lives. But this film doesn't quite easily fit into that mold; Strayed is just doing something impulsive to escape her screwy life. The re-centering is a happy byproduct of this long walk home. And that makes the whole experience seem less new-agey and more relatable about simply being clouded and overwhelming with sorrow and misery. Not to make Cheryl's journey sound depressing; Wild is often a joyous experience. Experience it and enjoy it as such.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

If you know or car anything about animation (especially of the hand-drawn variety), then you know anytime a film from Japan's Studio Ghibli comes out, you just buy a damn ticket. In fact, you buy two because it's almost always worth it to check out the film twice — once in its native Japanese and once in its English dub, which often features perfectly cast voice actors (often hand-picked by Ghibli's U.S. home video distributor, Disney). Usually when the latest work hits theaters, each location will offer the option of seeing it one way or the other in alternating showtimes. I tend to suggest hitting the native tongue first, followed by the English option.

While the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro) is often the primary focus of all Ghibli talk, the studio has offered up some extraordinary work from other filmmakers as well, most especially Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko, Only Yesterday), whose latest offering is The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based on perhaps Japan's most famous folktale about a tiny girl found by a bamboo cutter (voiced in the English version by James Caan) inside an illuminated stalk of bamboo. The cutter and his wife (Mary Steenburgen) raise the young girl, who grows exponentially over the months, and it becomes clear that she is some manner of princess (Chloë Grace Moretz), nicknamed L'il Bamboo by the other children in their village. And while the young princess seems to enjoy life among the humans, it becomes clear that something she did to be among them will come back to haunt her later in life, and eventually she is forced to deal with the consequences of her actions.

The first thing you notice about Princess Kaguya is the watercolor look of the animation. Watching it is akin to seeing a painting come to life, and it only adds to the otherworldly qualities of work. The story also examines the price paid by some for fast riches. When he finds L'il Bamboo, the cutter also discovers a stash of gold (which he naturally thinks the gods have bestowed on him to take care of the girl), and he uses it to move out of their tiny, impoverished village and into a castle. Naturally, suitors come to woo the princess (now named Kaguya), and it's at this point in the story that any children watching may scratch their heads at how much the girl's father takes over every aspect of her life. I realize this patriarchal-centric way of living is of the culture and the times, but a film that seems so intent on positioning Kaguya as a fierce, independent character is undercut by her adoptive daddy running her life. It's a minor issue, but it's an issue.

But for me, it all comes back to the animation and imagination on display. Takahata, whom I believe is now around 80 years old, still has such an eye for detail and creating raw beauty that you find yourself stunning with each new sequence. He's not interested in re-creating the real world through animation; he's devoted to building an elegance and simplicity to his work. These are not over-animated worlds he's inventing. The lines are clean and basic, but the way he captures everything from clouds to a newborn (or hatched or whatever) baby or elements of nature are extraordinary.

With supporting voice work from the likes of James Marsden, Beau Bridges, Lucy Liu and Darren Criss, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya reminds us of something that we really didn't need reminding of — that Studio Ghibli is a machine that takes both fantasy and reality and make them into something beautiful and worth watching over and over again. Even in the film's moving closing moments, when Kaguya must suffer the consequences for leaving her people to join the humans, there's a celebratory quality to the proceedings that will take your breath away. No detail is too small to make lovely; no imaginative corner is left un-mined. This is just one of those films that fills you with awe each time you view it.

The film opens today in Chicago for a four-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center in both the original Japanese language and English dubbed versions. See the Film Center website for which showtimes are playing which versions.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice

There have been a seemingly heightened number of documentaries of late about life in the Antarctic, since it is a place of extreme climate where a select few brave souls/total idiots actually live year round, conducting research as well as those providing services (cooking, general store, janitorial, maintenance) that support the researchers. As the title of the film indicates, filmmaker/photographer Anthony Powell spent a full year documenting one of the handful of research bases (as well as visiting a few others that are nearby) to get a sense of what life in this desperately isolated environment is like, and the results might make you stir crazy from capturing it almost too well.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice actually has footage spanning 15 years in the locale (nine spent in 24-hour darkness), so Powell is not new to this rodeo. The film captures the unique personality it takes to endure such surrounding, some of the emotional, psychological and physical impact the lifestyle causes (the periodic lapses in memory and losing one's thought process in mid-sentence is especially eerie), but at the same time, I'd have to imagine that taking on this challenging task might send one down a path of self-discovery, or at the very least, give a person a chance to watch a shit-ton of DVDs (the video library is quite impressive).

Living in this climate affords people the opportunity to see some of the most severe weather the planet has to offer (hurricane-force winds blowing snow around), unique wildlife (yes, there are penguins) and other natural phenomenon, and puts people in close quarters with individuals who have taught themselves to be patient and pleasant with others, since the alternative could make for a long four months of total isolation. During the more active months, the facilities are hopping with activity, but it's in the coldest, most brutal months where the labs scale back to a skeleton crew that runs maintenance in advance of the next research season.

Antarctica: A Year on Ice — and pretty much any competently made doc about this location — is endlessly fascinating stuff. Even with director Powell's touchy-feely style (he even married a woman he met at the facility), the place trumps the storytelling every time. As expected, some of the most interesting material here focuses on the oddballs of the group, who are amusing to listen to, but in the back of your mind you're thinking they might also murder you in your sleep. How can you not love that? The film is short, painless, and if you haven't been exposed to docs on this subject in the past, it's a great jumping-off point for discovering a corner of this earth you'll likely never see any other way. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Panic 5 Bravo

In this strange but ultimately clever and entertaining micro-budget work from actor-turned-writer-director Kuno Becker (who also stars) comes a single-location story of four paramedics working the overnight shift along the Arizona-Mexico border. The film almost never leaves the interior of their ambulance and provides for some truly harrowing, claustrophobic moments, to say the least.

When they receive a distress call from across the border, they realize they can see the victim from where they are parked and decide to quickly drive over into Mexico, grab the patient (with a gunshot to the gut), and bring him back over to treat him. I'll bet you can guess that nothing is that simple: the victim in question is actually a man much wanted by several very nasty parties in Mexico who will do anything to get him back. As the ambulance races back to the border, it's t-boned by another car and flipped over, leaving the paramedics and patient in various states of battered and bloody.

Panic 5 Bravo relies a great deal on threatening sounds and voices outside of the vehicles, and special mention should be made to the people in charge of the sound design. Filmmaker Becker is keenly aware that by not showing us much, the limited information we're getting from the outside world kicks our imagination into overdrive, and sends the viewer into a state of panic that is reflected by the characters. Becker, Catherine Papile, Dan Rovzar and John Henry Richardson as the four paramedics (as well as Raúl Méndez as the shooting victim) have a great dynamic, and by having a largely Latino cast, it allows the film to vaguely address issues regarding immigration without getting full-on political.

Panic 5 Bravo falters a bit in its final act, as certain secrets about some of the characters come to light, and the villains outside the ambulance begin to make extreme threats in order to get those inside to comply with their demands regarding the patient and his secrets. But overall, the movie does what it sets out to do and makes the most of its confined setting. It sets up a scenario in which we want the paramedics to get free, but we also know that something far worse is waiting for them outside, so we're not exactly sure of the outcome to be rooting for. There are some who will likely be unsatisfied with the climax (I'm on the fence about it), but it stays in line with the chaotic, brutal mess that is set up from the outset. It's a solid first effort from Becker, and if you find yourself drawn to promising debuts, this is one of them.

Bad Hair (Pelo Malo)

What I'd thought was going to a coming-of-age story about a 9-year-old boy from the projects of Caracas, Venezuela, turned out to be one of the best films I've seen in a long while about a mother's crippling fear that her son may be showing signs of being gay in a culture and community that would likely eat him alive if that were true. Bad Hair is also a movie about the heartbreak of tempering your big dreams because you live in a place where very few dreams come true.

Junior (Samuel Lange) lives with his mother Marta (Samantha Castillo) and infant sister, and while his mother is out working or looking for work, he roams the streets with his gal pal trying to come up with ways to straighten his insanely curly hair. Forced to leave the boy with his grandmother (the mother of his dead father), Marta is afraid the grandmother's more relaxed ways and love of '60s rock music (that borders on show tunes) is going to contribute to Junior possibly turning gay. But Junior is so obsessed with getting his hair straightened to look like a rock star for his school photo, I don't think he's given much thought to what sex he's most interested in.

As misguided as her actions are, Marta's homophobia comes from a good place. She doesn't seem to be morally against her son maybe being gay; she's trying to protect him from the unforgiving world outside that will bully him or worse as he gets older. Much of what she suggest he do to "remove" any gay feelings has more to do with keeping them hidden from the rest of the world. Either way you cut it, it's gut-wrenching stuff, and Castillo's performance is particular is exceptional.

Marta has her own secrets and physical needs that she need fulfilled, both as a means of clearing her head and a device to secure a job, which makes her feel all the more horrible about her life. Bad Hair reveals itself to be a work not just about Junior's seemingly impossible dreams, but his mother's as well. Amid their conflicts and clashing ways of viewing the world, the pair somehow manage to sustain a wonderful bond. Throughout the film, we notice that the struggles of this family are the same as the city they live in — poor, in desperate need of self expression, passionate and full of cultural views that threaten to tear it apart. This is a quietly powerful piece of filmmaking, rough around the edges, but so perfectly written (by director Mariana Rondón) and acted that you fall in love with every character when all is said and done. 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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