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« Compass Cabaret 55: How Chicago Became National Comedy Central Ragdale Ring Project Calling for Proposals »

Column Fri Jan 09 2015

Inherent Vice, Predestination, Leviathan, Le jour se Lève, Compass Cabaret '55 & Remote Area Medical

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Inherent Vice

It was 1970. The '60s were over, and hippies were on the way out. Their image, dress, music, hair, lingo, drugs — once looked at as a threat to the mainstream — had in fact been co-opted by it. The hippie ideal of love had also been perverted and made monstrous by the likes of Charles Manson, a man whose name comes up more than a few times in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest ensemble blur, which he adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel. Paranoia had replaced psychedelia. And when someone from the mainstream attempts to adopt the hippie belief that man should help his fellow man (in the case of real estate mogul Michael Wolfmann, he wants to give away all his property so people can live on it for free), that person is dealt with severely by friends, family and the government. How can the little guy — hippie or not — hope to survive? That's the world of Inherent Vice.

The fact that Doc Sportello (played to dizzying comic perfection by Joaquin Phoenix) is a private detective is something of a curiosity right from the start. He's a consummate stoner, and he's a womanizer with a pretty sad success rate. The one woman who will sleep with him (although she doesn't like being seen with him in public), Penny (Phoenix's Walk the Line co-star Reese Witherspoon), is a member of the straight world, working as a deputy DA. Into Doc's life one lazy, late afternoon comes his ex-old lady who vanished about a year earlier, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a breakthrough performance from Katherine Waterston, daughter of Sam). Shasta has come up in the world in the months since she broke Doc's heart: she's sleeping with the aforementioned Mr. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). His knowing wife and her lover are attempting to place in mental hospital for wanting to give the hippies free housing. Wolfmann has vanished and Shasta enlists Doc to find him.

What unfolds after that great cold opening is a tale that is rich with color, saturated with California warmth, all manner of brutality, and all manner of weird. If you've heard that Inherent Vice's plot isn't important, and that its characters are what the film is really all about, you've only been told half truths. The plot is essential; so is the rich succession of freaks that parade before Anderson's lens. The story and mystery of the film are complex but not complicated. Inherent Vice is casually told fable that cannot be viewed casually. Not every branch is as big and pretty as every other, but they all meet in the middle to make up one glorious tree.

I've seen the film four times in the space of a little less than a month, and as a result, I'm going to make a plea to the real film lovers reading who have made it this far. See Inherent Vice at least twice, even if you adore it the first time — maybe even because you do. I'm not going to tell you what to focus on each time; everyone watches movies differently. Some focus on characters, some on plot, some on visuals and music. I was trying to take it all in the first time, and while I was never lost, you just miss so much. There's a language among the characters that is so specific that I missed a lot of it the first time. It reminded me of the first time I saw Rian Johnson's Brick (not coincidentally another detective story of sorts), and I came out asking myself "What the hell language was that in?" But the second time with Brick, it's like I had a translating angel in my ear.

There was something about my second viewing of Inherent Vice — the film opened up to me completely. I heard and saw everything; even the jokes were funnier. Phoenix is tremendously off-kilter for the entire film. His reactions to the even wackier happenings around him are priceless, and he allows us to enter Doc's drug-addled mind just enough to know that most of what he's seeing is real, but his concern that he might be delusional is completely warranted. But nothing quite gets things going in this film like Josh Brolin's Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, a hulking man with acting ambitions and a fetish for frozen chocolate covered bananas. He is Doc's nemesis and confidante. He hates that Doc gets results on cases where he cannot, and it's literally driving him insane. The role is oddly not that far off from his Milk character Dan White — both men are so afraid of change that they eventually crack in radically different ways.

And yes, seeing any movie twice or more opens it up to you, but there was something about this particular second viewing that lit a fire behind my eyes and set my brain alight. So there.

The supporting cast of Inherent Vice is a goddamn embarrassment of riches, with the likes of Owen Wilson (in a wholly non-comedic performance), Benecio Del Toro (treading closely to his work in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Martin Short, Jena Malone, Serena Scott Thomas, Michael Kenneth Williams, Maya Rudolph, Hong Chau (as the indispensable Jade) and Martin Donovan.

Let me talk about one of the most interesting characters in the film (and this qualify as spoilery material for a moment): her name is Sortilège, and she is presented as Doc's best friend, his voice of reason, even sometimes the voice in his head when she's not around. She's played with a lovely Southern lilt by musician Joanna Newsom, in her first film role (she also happens to be Andy Sandberg's wife). She also serves as our knowing narrator (if you've seen any of the trailers for Inherent Vice, you know her voice).

The first time I saw the film, something about the way she was presented struck me as odd but magical. But it was upon my essential second viewing that I noticed that not a single person outside of Doc addresses Sortilège in any way; plus, there were things about her narration that were more like mind-reading than storytelling. And I came to the conclusion that she was, in fact, not a real person. She likely was at some point in Doc's life, but for whatever reason, she transitioned into the rational voice in his head. Perhaps the book makes her existence more clear, but I think she's the intelligence and deductive reasoning (at one point, she refers to it as "hippie ESP") that has kept Doc alive and functioning well past his expiration date. Even if I'm 100 percent wrong, Anderson has set a stage that makes it feel okay to even consider the possibility, and that's one of the many reason I love it so much.

From Jonny Greenwood's avant-garde score to Robert Elswit's cinematography that is so beautiful it'll make you cry a little, Inherent Vice isn't a movie set in 1970; it's a movie that strives in every way — from its look to its music to its spirit — to appear to have been made in 1970. And it reveals definitively that Anderson doesn't just strive to capture a period (only three of his seven films are set in the "present"); he adjusts his filmmaking style in ways that guide us into whatever place in history he's chosen to set his story. When I watch Boogie Nights or There Will Be Blood or The Master, I don't feel like I've seen a movie set in their respective decades; I feel transported to them and then been allowed to come back. And I want back on those rides again and again. In case you can't tell, I like Inherent Vice immensely.

Predestination

The third feature from the Australia-based Spierig Brothers (twins Michael and Peter, who made the 2003 zombie comedy Undead and the great 2009 vampire tale Daybreakers) is almost impossible to discuss — let alone review — without getting tripped up on plot details that could ruin the films many mind-bending secrets. Of course, if you've read the Robert A. Heinlein-penned 1959 short story "All You Zombies," it's not as much of an issue. But assuming you haven't, Predestination is a puzzle best solved without any hints as to what the final picture is going to look like.

I'll tell you the set up: Ethan Hawke plays a "Temporal Agent," a kind of time-traveling police officer who goes back in time to stop major crimes (usually on a terrorist-level scale) by preventing the criminal from committing the crime in the first place. His handler, Mr. Robertson (the great Noah Taylor, recently seen in Edge of Tomorrow), is keeping a close eye on Hawke's unnamed character as he relentlessly pursues a domestic terrorist known as the Fizzle Bomber, who is known to have killed thousands with his most notorious attack — one that the Agency wants to stop. Apparently an agent can only time travel so many times before it starts to deteriorate the brain, and Hawke is on the verge of crossing that threshold.

As part of a plan we are not privy to, Hawke goes undercover as a bartender in a dive bar, where he meets a sullen character, played by Sarah Snook, who bets Hawke that she has the saddest hard-luck story he's ever heard. But as she peels away the layers of her complex life story, it becomes clear that these two are not meeting by chance. And that's as much story detail as you're getting out of me.

One of the things Hawke does so well in his genre film roles is sells them. He can make the most outlandish worlds and circumstances seem plausible by simply treating them like they're possible. Whether he's a world-weary vampire in Daybreakers, or a genetically inferior man pretending to be perfect in Gattaca, or a ghost-haunted writer in Sinister, Hawke sells us on these concepts with a simple look. It just so happens it's the same look he might give playing an average guy in something like last year's Boyhood, and that's why we believe him.

But as good as Hawke is in Predestination, nothing is going to quite prepare you for what Sarah Snook pulls off here. The Australian-native is a relative unknown stateside (although she did just appear in the little-seen Jessabelle), but my guess is after you see her work in this, you'll commit her name to memory and eagerly await the next time you get to see her act.

Predestination is complex without being complicated. I certainly wouldn't recommend watching this film in the background or if you're in any way distracted. I wouldn't actually recommend watching any film that way, but if you don't want to get lost, you probably shouldn't take your eyes off the screen or even blink. Since the original short story was only a few pages long, the Spierig Brothers have done an impressive job fleshing out the story in their adaptation. What the Spierigs continue to do is take familiar genre tropes (vampires, zombies, and now time travel), deconstruct them, and then re-assemble the pieces in ways that have simply not been done before. I hope they never lose that adventurous and thoroughly entertaining way of working, although I wish they'd find a way to work a little faster (three films in 11 years is unacceptable).

Predestination may anger some (nothing is a truer sign that you're doing something right), but I'm guessed most will be completely floored by how this story plays out. That being said, the movie is more than simply its big shocks and twists. More than anything else, the film succeeds primarily on a purely emotional experience, and that's in large part due to Snook's daring performance. I can't wait to see this one again. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive (heavily spoiler-filled) interview with Predestination star Ethan Hawke and directors The Spierig Brothers, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Leviathan

In the Old Testament of the Bible, Leviathan was portrayed as an ancient sea monster, but in more modern times the word has become synonymous with any large sea creature, much like the whales whose bones are fully exposed during low tide in the small fishing village in northern Russia, near the Barents Sea. In the Russian film Leviathan (which recently made the short list for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award), the term might also be used to describe the equally enormous and lifeless system that keeps a fishing family from being able to fight a corrupt mayor who is attempting to tear down their home and business in the name of progress.

The family patriarch, Kolya (Alexey Serebryakov) does attempt to deny the mayor his version of eminent domain in the useless court system. He enlists the help of Moscow-based lawyer friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov). It becomes clear that director Andrey Zyagintsey (Elena, The Return) is playing the courtroom scene for laughs, as the judge whips through reading the decision with the passion of a sleeping auctioneer. Not surprisingly, the news is bad for the family. Kolya continues his search for justice with the local police and clergy, neither of which are any use. Dmitri even pulls out a surprise folder of evidence in a private meeting with the grotesque mayor, but even that doesn't end this story, which manages more than a few surprises in its epic length.

Leviathan places on display an ocean's worth of trouble for everyone involved, with crimes of the state running neck and neck with crimes of passion. The experience of watching the film is both wholly satisfying thanks to its sly, dark humor and almost overwhelmingly oppressive with grief and injustice for all. The performances are sometimes tough to judge; they certainly are effective, although it seems all you need to know how to do as a Russian actor is to scowl at least as well as the guy next to you.

Set in a community whose soul is as dead and rotten as the carcasses that litter its shores, Leviathan is a haunting as an emotional experience but also surprisingly critical of Russia's status quo. I realize that filmmakers in the former Soviet Union have infinitely more freedoms when it comes to expressing their displeasure with their society, but it's still rare to see one do so to this degree. Zyagintsey takes as direct an aim at life under Putin as I've seen by a high-profile Russian director (naturally his work is considered "fringe" in his native country). Leviathan is a sweeping yet intimate work that is one of the purest expressions of desperation that you're likely to see on screen, and it's well worth seeking out. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Le jour se Lève

Until laying eyes on this crisp, gorgeous 4K digital restoration of 1939's Le jour se Lève (or Daybreak) recently, I'd never seen this early film noir ancestor from director Marcel Carné (Children of Paradise, Port of Shadows, both also written by written by Jacques Prévert). The film grabs you by the collar and pulls you harshly into its shadowy realm with the sound of a gunshot behind a closed door of a top-floor apartment. Soon after, a man stumbles out of the room clutching his gut and falls down the steep stairs. It's a race to see if the gunshot or a broken neck ultimately takes his life. With the police soon to arrive and neighbors attempting to piece together the series of events leading to the shooting, the gunman, François (the magnetic Jean Gabin), barricades himself in his room and begins to remember what got him to such a desperate place.

The flashbacks show us François is a factory worker who falls for a girl working in a flower shop, Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) — the two bond over their identical names. But she has caught the attention of an older magician and overall cad Valentin (Jules Berry), and the two men vie for her affections in quite different ways. François is the strong, silent type, while Valentin is a sweet talker who promises to take this innocent young women to bigger and better places. As if to show (or at least pretend) that he doesn't care who Françoise chooses, François ends up bedding Valentin's former assistant Clara (Arletty) simply because he can and she wants to. The levels of passive-aggressiveness are astounding here, especially since the best scenes in the film are between the men, as they trade verbal barbs in a weirdly friendly way.

Director Carné does remarkable things with composition to convey the torn nature of his characters. Françoise knows that the young factor worker is the best man for her, but she can't quite shake the young girl's desire for a bad boy she might be able to turn good. Le jour se Lève is also remarkably sensual with a whole lot of poetic love talk often transitioning into off-screen bedding — although a long-deleted/censored nude scene with Arletty has been restored for this complete version. (Also restored: the names of the Jewish crew members, which were removed by the censors.)

Seamlessly moving from gritty to darkly romantic (much like its leading man), the film is a testimonial that love stories can also be cool and moody and even tragic, without being overly sentimental. The balanced, controlled tone here is extraordinary, and puts you deep into the troubled mind of our antihero. New subtitle translations complete the film's overhaul to its intended state, and the result is perfection, pure and simple and black and white. If this restored print of Le jour se Lève ends up playing at a rep/art house near you, make it a priority to see it. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Compass Cabaret '55

I have no doubt in my mind that the Chicago improv theater scene would not exist without the groundbreaking work done by the Compass Players, but you might have a little trouble seeing evidence of that if all you learn about the company is from the Mark Siska-directed documentary Compass Cabaret '55, which features a whole lot of talking heads and very little (almost nothing, actually) actual archival examples of this pioneering work. Look, I get it. I'm assuming there's no such footage because none was ever shot at the time. And certainly the lively story of Compass needs to be told, but it makes for a frustrating filmgoing experience not being able to see the early work of legends like Mike Nichols, Elains May, Ed Asner, Barbara Harris, Shelley Berman, Byrne Piven, Del Close and many others, some of whom went on to form Second City.

The lessons taught and learned at Compass formed the basis for modern improv acting — and not just the comedic variety. A great deal of the work the troupe was best known for were more serious takes on certain material, including famous plays that the actors would be allowed to rework if something didn't ring true to them. But what the film becomes is a collection of petty jealousies, rivalries and people taking credit for some of the more famous routines. We're given basic lessons in creating worthy improv scenarios, but aren't shown examples of many, not even from some of the more famous creations done on the Compass stage.

Far more interesting to me was the historical context from which Chicago improv arose, and many of those interviewed, including Compass co-founder David Sheperd, see a direct link from the Red Scare to productions that are partially created by the audience — theater of the proletariat. Whereas a playwright might get in serious trouble for writing a communist-themed piece, simply having the audience call out scenarios that might turn into a "pink" scene could hardly be predicted or enforced by the government.

One of the strangest aspects of Compass Cabaret '55 is listening to Shelley Berman, an absolute improv master, who came out of a more traditional acting background, but ended up using that to do magnificent one-man pieces later in his career (often involving his being one half of a telephone call). He remains a firm believer that improv should be used to get to the heart of whatever the situation might call for and not just for laughs, but he also directly addresses the cameraman, the boom operator, and the director in very unnerving ways that drag his fascinating interviews to a halt.

Make no mistake, I'm a great admirer of the information being presented in this documentary; I'm just not a fan of the way it's presented. For example, the section on the Nichols-May years just sounds like a whole lot of bragging about who knew them best or taught them what or jump-started their careers, and doesn't offer up a tremendous amount of actual information about their early theater years. Die-hard improv lovers will eat this up; I was happy just sampling bits and pieces with ever really feeling full.

The film opens in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where it will screen on Friday, Jan. 9 at 8pm, and Wednesday, Jan. 14 at 8pm. Director Mark Siska will be present for audience discussions after both screenings.

Remote Area Medical

I watch a lot of documentaries in a given year. Some of them I watch simply for their educational value, and there was a time when it seemed every one I saw made me angry and/or outraged as I watched great societal or planetary injustice play out. But I can't remember the last time a documentary filled me with pure, uncut levels of anxiety the way that Remote Area Medical did. I realize that saying that probably won't inspire you to place seeing the film at the top of your "To Do" list, but hear me out because in the end, the film also has several rays of hope scattered throughout its tales of last-chance desperation.

From co-directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman, the film is the account of roughly three days (and nights) in the lives of people on both sides of a program that was established to bring free medical treatment to people and places who simply don't have the access or means to even the simplest care. As the organization's founder, Stan Brock (who I absolutely remember from his days hosting "Wild Kingdom"), reminds us, the RAM program was established to help people in other countries where medical attention was hundreds of miles away (the Amazon rainforest, certain nations in Africa, Guatemala, Honduras, etc.), but the need in America was so great that they've actually cut back on their work in other countries.

The filmmakers took their cameras to a free clinic set up once a year at the NASCAR speedway in Bristol, Tennessee, deep in the belly of Appalachia, where folks can get simple check-ups, dental work (there is a sickening number of tooth extractions on display in the film), new glasses, x-rays, mammograms — pretty much anything short of invasive surgery is on the table. There are countless interviews with those in dire need of medical care, as well as the volunteer doctors and dentists who give their time to the cause.

So where does the anxiety come in? Well, each morning at 3:30am, there's a process of giving out numbers to people, some of whom have been waiting in line for days. The first day, they give out 500 numbers, which sounds like a lot, but it isn't nearly enough. And many of the people who don't get in have taken the day off of work to be there, which means their options are to take another day off to get there earlier the next day, or don't see the doctor until the following year. It's absolutely heartbreaking to witness, yet it seems that by the end of the final day, no one is left unseen who is actually there.

As much as the film might have been a condemnation of the American health care system, it's difficult to tell exactly when these events were shot — pre- or post-Obamacare. There are vague references to the Affordable Care Act and the tax penalties that are levied against the uninsured, but it's unclear whether this was in place when the film was made. In the end, it really doesn't matter because it becomes clear that these are people who have issues that such measures may not even be able to help. The common theme among these folks is that many once had solid jobs with good benefits, all of which disappeared during the economic downturn.

Remote Area Medical is smart enough to not let its message get lost in political nonsense, instead focusing on the people at the heart of its efforts, on both sides of the stethoscope. It's a film that asks us to absorb a great deal of misery in its early minutes, followed by a great deal of tears (mostly the good kind) from doctors and patients when all is said and done. This is a film that is extremely hard to shake, and I think that's a good thing. It's a solid reminder of a world and life that many of us have never and maybe will never be exposed to, and getting out of ones comfort zone might not make us better people but at least it might make us a little more aware. This is a seriously great, eye-opening piece of filmmaking. But seriously, if you have trouble with dental trauma, stay far away. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run 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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