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Column Fri Feb 27 2015

Focus, The Lazarus Effect, What We Do in the Shadows, Wild Tales, Ballet 422, Bluebird & Everly

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Focus

Since I saw The Sting for the first time, the con artist movie has basically been ruined for me, because I learned that in any film about these tricksters, you have to assume that everyone is lying. And if you're looking for it hard enough, odds are you'll find the lie early enough that when the con is finally funny revealed, it's anticlimactic. That's not to say there haven't been dozens of really enjoyable films about flim-flam men and women, but often it's the characters — and not the the con itself — who are the most interesting part of these films. And this is certainly the case for Focus, the latest from Will Smith who has been noticeably absent from movies since Another Earth tanked two years ago (unless you count his cameo in last year's Winter's Tale, which I never will).

Focus gives it a worthy try, not only executing a handful of detailed cons and walking us through the setups and tricks to the payoff, but also diving into the keys that make Smith's Nicky Spurgeon an expert in reading and manipulating people. Some of it seems a bit outrageous, but very little of it feels out of the realm of complete unbelievability. Nicky recognizes that getting people to do what you want is a science — a collection of psychological tools that gets a person to believe exactly what you want them to.

One night, Nicky meets Jess (The Wolf of Wall Street's Margot Robbie), a seeming damsel in distress at the bar of a fancy restaurant, where another patron is drunkenly hitting on her. They strike up a lovely conversation, and end up in her hotel room, where she and a male counterpart attempt to pull the jealous husband routine on Nicky for money, which he spotted miles early and laughs off the whole incident. But Jess is impressed not only with Nicky's powers of observation but also appreciates his tips on doing it right the next time, and she asks to be taken under his wing to learn and work with him. Smith and Robbie have a sharp, wicked, beautiful chemistry, and watching them play off each other is one of the real joys of Focus. Sadly, there's also a convoluted plot that pulls them apart once their first big con is executed, after which Nicky leaves Jess in the wind after a big score (he does give her her cut, to be fair), but he also makes her a much better con artist in the process.

The film jump ahead three years, and we catch Nicky as he's setting up his next big con in the world of auto racing, working for a sponsor (Rodrigo Santoro) who wants to have the edge with new technology he's invented. To be safe, he hires Nicky to pull together a scam to undercut his competitors with shitty tech that appears genuine. The sponsor's security man (a nice turn by Gerald McRaney) doesn't trust Nicky, and neither did I. Just as the plan is about to be set in motion, Jess appears at Santoro's side, and Nicky is visibly shaken. She claims she isn't running a game on her new man and is simply his girlfriend, but that doesn't stop Nicky from laying it on thick with her in an effort to win her back.

I'm not 100 percent sure the way the con and the film play out makes total sense. Obviously, I won't give away the ending, but I'm not sure I could if I wanted to because there are a few key questions that aren't explained, and there are lingering questions about who knew what when that could determine whether the outcome is genius or utterly random. Co-writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid, Love; I Love You Phillip Morris and writers of Bad Santa) handle most of the fast talk and trickery with great skill and precision, so it's a little shocking that the end is so muddled and unsure (I'm sure they don't think so, but it is). Focus is aided tremendously by the sheer charisma of the actors, including key supporting roles by McRaney, Adrian Martinez as Nicky's right-hand man Farhad, and BD Wong as a gambling man who takes advantage of Nicky's one weakness.

But if you look at the film too closely, some of its tricks reveal themselves and sour what is often a energetic, nicely shot and well-acted endeavor. I'm still going to recommend Focus (barely) because it's always good to see Smith at the top of his game, and Robbie is not only a sight to behold but a genuine acting talent (I saw Z for Zachariah at Sundance in January, and it's clear we're only just beginning to sense her range as an actor). I enjoy watching actors make the most of material that is not as strong as they are, and for that reason, Focus might be worth checking out. Just keep an eye on your watch.

The Lazarus Effect

Here is yet another example of taking a sub-standard plot and enhancing it with an interesting choice for director and an even more interesting cast. The Lazarus Effect is a curious twist on the Dr. Frankenstein story in which a group of young university researchers are attempting to develop a serum that brings life back into the lifeless. Their original idea was that this extra time would give health care professional longer to repair or revive a person before they were officially dead. But once they see the seemingly positive results of their animal experiments, they begin to see the ramifications it could have on more than just hospital use.

Mark Duplass and Olivia Wilde play Frank (get it? Frank, as in Frankenstein?) and Zoe, who head up the team, who work more or less in secret until they stray a little too far from their stated research parameters and a wily pharmaceutical company moves in and takes all of their lab equipment, computers and everything else related to the tests. But those sneaky kids — who also include Donald Glover as Nico, Evan Peters as Clay, and newly hired videographer Eva (Sarah Bolger) — have kept a stash of the key ingredients to their serum and immediately break back into the lab and stage the experiment one last time.

My biggest problem with The Lazarus Effect are the key personality traits of each researcher, and how incredibly unprofessional they are, outside of the fact they are bringing dead things back to life. Frank and Zoe are in a relationship, but are constantly at odds with each other about what they are doing. She's a tad religious, so naturally this idea of snatching souls from the other side is troubling to her. Nico has a crush on Zoe, so he's quietly undermining Frank's decisions; Evan is a stoner; and Eva is just a device to give us another camera angle. But the biggest concern about Zoe is a recurring dream/memory that she has every night about a fire she witnessed as a child in which many neighbors were killed. Her guilt and anxiety over the incident has clearly impaired her judgment and later that comes into play in a rather nasty way.

During this final experiment, a mishap ends up killing Zoe, so naturally the clear-headed Frank decides on the spot to bring her back to life using their barely tested methods, which works but leaves them with a Zoe that is not like their friend. She's having visions and seems immediately able to do and see things with her mind because of the serum's impact on her brain. The film stumbles through vague religious and scientific discussions about what happens after death, what happens to the soul and body's energy when death occurs, and the many definitions of hell.

The man who directed The Lazarus Effect is David Gelb, who helmed the extraordinary documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi a couple years back, and I'll give him credit for allowing the characters to discuss, however briefly, many of the philosophical and medical thoughts on death and what comes after death, if anything. But it doesn't take long for the film to collapse into standard-issue horror gimmicks — plenty of loud noises to make you jump, but not a lot of genuine tension and atmosphere beyond various re-creations of the apartment fire, which becomes a staging ground for a showdown of sorts between Zoe and those who are trying to make her dead again.

I almost wish the film has been 10-15 minutes longer, if only so we could have gotten to know these sketches of characters long enough to care about them being in danger later in the film. When Zoe died, I barely cared, and I certainly didn't feel an ounce of Frank's grief, the way we really ought to. As it exists, The Lazarus Effect feels like we're rushing through a slightly better sci-fi/horror movie. There are certainly elements that work well enough, but I have a feeling there's a better-paced and emotionally rooted version somewhere out there. It's so short that it never wears out its welcome, but our investment in these characters and their dilemma is so minimal that it's impossible to feeling anything lasting about this movie. It's a close call, but the film can't overcome its shortcomings.

What We Do in the Shadows

I didn't just grow up loving vampire movies; vampire movies were my gateway drug into not only my great love of horror films but also my love and appreciation of film in general. It's where it all started for me. So to sit down and watch a film made by great comic talents who are also clearly fellow vampire enthusiasts is beyond a thrill. What We Do in the Shadows comes from New Zealand writers-directors Jemaine Clement ("Flight of the Conchords") and Taika Waititi (who made the odd little film Eagle vs. Shark with Clement many years ago), and the pair suppose that vampires would not be very good with money, so some of them would be forced to share a living space. Now imagine a documentary film crew is invited in to get an inside look as to what might go on at such a dwelling. Turns out, dirty dishes are a big problem.

The film's first genius move is to acknowledge many incarnations of vampires, from the more animalistic (as in Nosferatu) to Gary Oldman's version of Dracula, to more swashbuckling/loverboy types with puffy shirts, to more modern, newly bitten types whose knowledge of vampires might be limited to The Lost Boys or Twilight. There is even an acknowledgement of child vampires (as in Interview with a Vampire or Let the Right One In). The primary housemates include Waititi's Viago, a fancy lad with a delicate sensibility who still can't feed off humans without making a mess; Clement's Vladislav (the Oldman-style vamp); and Jonathan Brugh's Deacon, the bloodthirsty and reckless creature of the night who is committed to looking as badass as he feels.

Not only are these vampires stuck the age they were when they were turned, but their fashion sense hasn't progressed much beyond whichever century they were bitten. My favorite, but little-seen, housemate is Petyr (Ben Fransham), a Nosferatu-style creature (who delivers the film's few genuine scare moments) who decides to turn a rather dense individual named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), who has no qualms about telling the world that he's a vampire living with other vampires.

The fake documentary is actually rather informative and digs deep into the sometimes mundane lives of this crew. Being unable to go out during the day, the vamps must occupy themselves with dull hobbies and party tricks, and the attention to detail truly informs the comedy. They don't realize how lonely and desperate they are for non-vampire company until Nick brings his human friend Stu to the house. Naturally, the flatmates like Stu better than Nick, and they all vow not to drain Stu.

The film dives into the world of "familiars," humans who act as servants for the vampire in exchange for the promise of being turned one day soon. We see the perils of going out for an evening among humans (you never really consider how hard it would be to get into a club if you have to be invited in), and we see how violent things can get when vampires get into a tussle with each other or other creatures of the night, including werewolves (who seem intent on being dignified and not curse: "We're werewolves, not swearwolves" says the Alpha wolf.)

The special effects (done by former and current Weta technicians) in the film are actually one of the great selling points of the film, adding a layer of authenticity to the work. But the key to being drawn into the film are these incredibly realized characters, who suffer the same indignities and frustrations as we do, despite some of them being hundreds of years old. The film is not just funny but insightful, clever and strangely relatable. I saw What We Do in the Shadows for the first time almost a year ago at the SXSW Film Festival, and seeing it again recently rekindled my adoration for it immensely. Lovers of comedy, horror and oddball characters should all take note and rejoice. The films opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Wild Tales

One of the more inventive but least consistent films nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar last week was the Argentine Wild Tales, from writer-director Damián Szifron (The Bottom of the Sea) featuring a series of six short films about people pushing back — sometimes in acts of pure revenge, other times in acts of vengeance. I wasn't the least bit surprised to see the names Agustín and Pedro Almodóvar listed as producers on this film, since sometimes the humor gets downright subversive, but the overall work is as enjoyable as it is jarring at times.

The first quick, cold-open, pre-credits short needs no explanation other than it involves an airplane and one of the most shocking and hilarious revenge plots I've ever seen. End of story. The second segment is a bit more subtile, and it concerns a waitress who comes face to face with the gangster who drove her father to suicide. With an ex-con cook and a box of rat poison, the story becomes a will she/won't she dilemma that plays out unexpectedly. One of my favorites is the third tale involving two drivers, whose mutual rage forces them into a game of one-upmanship that concludes quite appropriately.

My favorite and perhaps the most chilling segment concerns a demolition expert (the great Ricardo Darin) who is having the worst day of his life, which in turn leads to the dominos of his life to come crashing down into each other. After fruitlessly fighting the system, he seeks revenge the only way he knows how. The final two stories are a bit more of a challenge, for very different reasons. The fifth could have been its own feature-length film, involving a rich man whose reckless son comes home one day after accidentally running down a pregnant women in his car and driving away. The rich man uses his power, influence and cash to persuade his lawyer and his groundskeeper to concoct a story that puts the groundskeeper behind the wheel of the car. Payoffs are required, but things do not pan out like anyone thought they might. It's a somewhat sickening story that makes for a such a solid drama that I wanted more.

The final segment is probably the weakest and most annoying, and it takes place during a Jewish wedding reception, during which the bride finds out her new husband has been having an ongoing affair with one of the guests, and she gets revenge with an emotional fireworks display that puts any nation's independence day to shame. Most of the setups of these Wild Tales are ones we've seen before, but there's something about Szifron's approach to the material that makes it feel fresh and, in some cases, utterly new. All of this fiery revenge seeking might be a bit too much bitterness for some audience members to take, but I'm guessing most viewers will feel an immense satisfaction at watching representative assholes get taken down. Wild Tales is a swift kick in the teeth, and I'm just grateful that it's somebody else's teeth and I get to watch get knocked in. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Ballet 422

Jody Lee Lipes is best known in the movie-making world as the terrific cinematographer of such films as Tiny Furniture, Martha Marcy May Marlene, the current release Bluebird, The Great Invisible, the upcoming Judd Apatow film Trainwreck and episodes of HBO's "Girls." But for his first feature, he has chosen to track from rehearsal to premiere the New York City Ballet's 422nd new opera, choreographed by the young Justin Peck, who showed promise in a choreography workshop and came up through the ranks of background dancers to create this new piece.

Ballet 422 is done in a similar documentary style to Frederick Wiseman (whose own 2009 feature La Danse, about the Paris Opera Ballet, covers some of the same territory), using no narration or interviews (there are a few select title cards, primarily to show the passage of time). Instead, Lipes chooses to be a fly on the wall, flying behind Peck as he works out each dancer's part, talks arrangement with the musicians, sweats color and style options with the costume department, and finalizes lighting design. It's rare that we get to see an artist of any kind piece together whatever their final work will be, but Ballet 422 gives us a glimpse inside the actual process that sees Peck go from calm and supportive near the beginning of rehearsals to mildly panicked and less patient as the days to premiere grow shorter to kick off the company's 2013 winter season.

I'm sure fans of ballet in general will get for more out of this work than the rest us, but as someone who has never seen a ballet in person, I found watching one get put together rather fascinating and precise. Peck selected some of the company's top dancers for his tricky Paz de la Jolla performance, and even in the rehearsal stage, watching people who are the best in their profession is quite impressive and even moving. The film doesn't give us any indication of what Peck felt about the premiere performance, but I have to imagine that if he was displeased, we'd know about it. It's a shorter film (about 75 minutes), so you are dropped in and pulled out rather quickly, but given just enough time to explore the world of professional ballet and its intricacies as is necessary. Ballet 422 is a wonderful glimpse, and I hope director Lipes has other arts he is passionate about, so he can explore those as well. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Bluebird

I'm a firm believer that everyone needs a little genuine misery in their life every so often, just so we can appreciate the good things that much more. For example, I don't think people (especially critics) should avoid movies they believe are going to be bad. Because without being exposed to the crap, how will you know just how good the good ones are? Along those lines, I actually know people who avoid movies they believe will make them cry or are otherwise depressing simply because the only function movies serve in their lives is to make them happy. I go to the movies to feel something — and yes, sometimes it's joy, but often it's melancholy, and I love them both equally.

Case in point, the 2014 festival favorite Bluebird, which is slowly making its way to art houses across the country and may be one of the bleakest, most gut-wrenching films you'll see all year. It's also a glorious reminder that bad things happen to good people, and often those good people are not capable of handling the sorrow of what is sometimes nobody's fault. The great Chicago theater actor Amy Morton (Up in the Air, "Chicago P.D." and the original stage version of August: Osage County) plays Lesley, a school bus driver in a small Maine town, who is walking the length of her seemingly empty bus before locking it up on a cold January night, when she is distracted by something as ridiculous as a bird flying in the bus door. She doesn't quite make it to the back of the bus, and if she had she would have noticed a child asleep in one of the back seats. The next morning, she finds the nearly dead child on the seat, and her entire life begins to rapidly fall apart.

Much in Lesley's world is a mess. Her husband Richard (John Slattery of "Mad Men") is a logger on the verge of losing enough contracts to be unemployed; and their daughter Paula (Emily Meade) is slowly falling for a guy at her high school that will ultimately do her wrong. But the other family impacted by the incident on the bus is that of the boy. His mother, Marla (Louisa Krause), barely registers that he didn't come home the night before because she's been out drinking; her mother (the always great Margo Martindale) is the child's primary guardian, and she sits at the bedside of the comatose boy, waiting for signs of movement or reaction while Marla talks to a shady attorney about getting money from Lesley, who has none to give.

Bluebird is about a town full of beaten-down, struggling folks, and writer-director Lance Edmands (a Maine native, and film editor of such indies as Tiny Furniture) captures every furrowed brow, breath of cold air, and character flaw he can reach with his camera. It sounds like pure agony, but there's something completely fulfilling about seeing people work through their day-to-day problems alongside these catastrophes to something resembling a manageable conclusion. For a small film with not a lot of plot, it does find ways to surprise us with certain unexpected conversations and revelations along the way.

Ultimately, Bluebird is an examination of how a small town experiences the ripples of a tragedy like this one, but also how eager (almost too much so) everyone is to move past it and start worrying about their own problems again. It can't help but be sad to watch Lesley's world go to pieces, because as routine and emotionally stagnant as her world has become, nothing like this has ever happened before, and she feels it deeply and profoundly, to the point where we're not sure she'll ever get over it. Edmands emphasizes how isolated a place like this is from the rest of the world, and how that isolation makes its residents less connected, especially during the coldest months. This is pure, uncut drama at its finest, and in a perfect world Amy Morton's work here would be seen by all. She's an acting treasure that too few people are aware of, and Bluebird is her finest work on film. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets.

Everly

There is something about watching a known-quantity actor or actress throw themselves headfirst into complete b-movie cinematic blood-and-guts chaos that also requires them to tap into a primal part of their acting talents that we rarely, if ever, get to see. Welcome to Everly, and please allow it to reintroduce you to Selma Hayek as pulp movie heroine, kicking ass and having her ass kicked in return.

As directed by Joe Lynch (Knights of Badassdom, Wrong Turn 2), Hayek plays Everly, a woman officially ending her days as a prostitute and sex slave for Japanese mobster and ex-boyfriend Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe) by killing pretty much all of his henchmen. Almost the entire film takes place within a single apartment, in just a couple of rooms. But in this location, Everly mows down everyone sent in their to kill her — thugs, other prostitutes, assassins with peculiar ways of taking out a mark. And she does this to protect her mother and daughter, who are being threatened by Taiko if she doesn't turn herself over to him. Injured, cover in blood (mostly other people's) and generally rattled, Everly makes her mission to save her family and get out from under this man forever, even if it means her death.

Everly is a movie about survival. Even when she's prepared to die, either luck or instincts take over, and Everly stays breathing until the next weirdo comes through the door with a new set of weapons. I particularly enjoyed the relationship she establishes with the one henchman who doesn't die from a nasty gut shot, whom she simply refers to as "Dead Man" (Akie Kotabe). They have something resembling a rapport, and he even finds ways to help her to struggle on and protect Everly's daughter.

The film is relentless, sometimes brutal, but always compelling and laced with a cold, dark humor that adds a nasty smile to the proceedings. And although there are certainly breaks in the action, they don't last long enough for your heart to stop pounding or the anxiety to drop significantly in anticipation of the next attack. But for Lynch, the key is in the pacing. Everly's action comes in bursts and rarely goes all out for long stretches. For Hayek, the key is see the problem, deal with it, and retreat to restock weapons and collect her thoughts.

Wisely, the actual figure of Taiko is only heard on the phone for most of the film. He's kept away from us as a voice from the shadows, until he finally arrives to confront his old flame, demanding respect and love and fear all at once, but Everly is having none of it. There's a style and visual strength to Everly that is new for Lynch, and I like this new level of sophistication from him. The film is not for everybody, especially if your constitution has issues with someone getting tortured and beat up (nothing wrong with you feeling that way, just don't say I didn't warn you). But I'm on board with the simple yet interesting approach of the film and a tremendous, powerhouse performance by Hayek that ties is all together. The film is playing at midnight this Friday and Saturday at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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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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