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Column Fri Mar 20 2015

The Gunman, It Follows & The Hunting Ground

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

The Gunman

With this latest film The Gunman, expert action cinematographer-turned-director Pierre Morel himself carving out an interesting niche market — taking slightly older, quite talented actors and turning them into balls-out action stars. He did it first with Liam Neeson in Taken (only the one), who admittedly had done an action turn here and there in Darkman, Batman Begins and The Phantom Menace. But with Taken, the actorly Neeson began a trajectory that has made him a fairly bankable action hero (hello, Run All Night). There was a time in Neeson's career when doing action was the novelty; today, the pure dramas are more rare. But it's his gift as an actor that makes us care so much about him as an action star.

Now Morel has enlisted Sean Penn to play Terrier, a sniper working for a mercenary team of assassins in the Congo who has been hired by mining interests to help keep the region unstable so the mining companies can swoop in and take what they want. Terrier has established himself in the area and even helps out his aide worker girlfriend Annie (Italian actress Jasmine Trinca) when he's not busy. But on his last assignment, he is chosen to assassinate the minster of mines for the Congo and is then forced to flee the country without saying a word to Annie, essentially abandoning her, leaving her in the comforting arms of Terrier's jealous co-worker Felix (Javier Bardem, in full crazy mode).

The film jumps ahead something like eight years. Terrier has returned to the Congo where he works for an NGO (non-governmental organization) helped rebuild from the chaos; he's in charge of drilling new wells. Out of nowhere, a group of mercenaries arrives looking for him specifically, clearly aiming to murder him, but Penn busts out some exemplary hand-to-hand combat and takes them down. The incident triggers ideas in his head that someone might be after those who perpetrated the assassination years earlier, and he goes to London to seek out some of his old buddies to see if they're holding up any better. Turns out many of them are, including team leader Cox (the great British stage actor Mark Rylance), who is a now a big-shot business man, and Felix, who has moved back to Spain with Annie as his unhappy wife.

The Gunman is part mystery, part chase film, part political intrigue story, and it actually feels right in Sean Penn's wheelhouse as the film has a lot to say about the way outside governments and corporations are constantly mixing it up with unstable nations in the name of acquiring natural resources. The film isn't preachy about its message, but I'm guessing they were amplified when Penn signed on. What drew me into the movie were the action sequences. Many of the close-contact, close-quarter battles look so painful and were so skillfully staged that I winced for most of the film. To make me even more envious of Penn as a human being, there are several scenes with him shirtless, and the son of a bitch is ripped. It ain't right, and I don't like it.

The Gunman isn't solely an action film, but when it kicks into that place, it's at its best. An extended shootout in Bardem's palatial Spanish estate is spectacular and gruesome. And the big finale set in a bullfighting ring is just ridiculous enough to work. We also get a glimpse of Idris Elba in the film in a role I won't ruin here, but he's quite good, and he and Penn should make every movie together. I also really like Ray Winstone, on hand as Stanley, Terrier's long-time trusted London buddy who helps him out for part of his mission to find out who's trying to kill him.

The film's biggest miscalculation is thinking we care that much about the relationship between Terrier and Annie, who is angry with him but still very much in love. I don't care. And the amount of time Terrier spends protecting or saving Annie from harm kills the momentum of the main story. The trouble isn't with Trinca as an actor; it's with her underwritten part. I don't know if the screenwriters took her character from the original Jean-Patrick Manchette novel, but there has to be more to her than cowering and being kidnapped.

The Gunman marks the first time that Morel, who also gave us the exemplary District B13 and the abysmal From Paris with Love, is working without his mentor and constant collaborator Luc Besson (both men are French), and if anything, the separation seems to be working to Morel's advantage, proving he can take a serious turn in his stories without sacrificing some truly great action work. It's also nice to see Penn back on the boards in a leading role — his first since This Must Be the Place — not afraid to reinvent himself as he edges toward 55. I wouldn't go so far as to call The Gunman a great film, but it's pretty strong stuff and likely far better than you might imagine. I've seen it twice now, and it actually felt tougher and make complex the second time. Go for the political intrigue and high-stakes action; stay for the pectoral muscles and two types of gun shows.

It Follows

In 2010, writer-director David Robert Mitchell gave audiences a peek inside the lives and minds of teenagers in a quaint Michigan suburb with The Myth of the American Sleepover, for which he was rightfully applauded for presenting these pre-adults with a certain amount of accuracy, dignity and maturity, while still making it clear these kids were still kids. Shifting genres, but without abandoning his gift for painting young people as fully realized people, Mitchell has developed one of the truly creepiest films to make the festival rounds since its premiere at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

The plot and execution of It Follows are so deceptively simple that one almost wonders why other horror filmmakers rely so much on computer-generated special effects, often with meager results. The film opens with a pretty young woman running out of her house looking absolutely terrified. She pauses in the middle of her street, then sees whatever scared her in the first place and runs again, eventually hopping in the family car and driving away. A masterful, thumping electronic score by Rich Vreeland tells us that we should be very afraid of whatever it is we can't see and this girl clearly can. That night, we see her sitting on a beach, with only the car lights illuminating her. She's staring into the dark waiting for something to come. The look of desperate resignation on her face lets us know she is ready to die, and by morning, she doesn't look quite as pretty.

With very little in the way of transition, we meet 19-year-old Jay (rising talent Maika Monroe, recently seen in The Guest, Labor Day and At Any Price), who is spending most of her time hanging out with sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi). She's also started dating Hugh (Jake Weary), a relative newcomer to the area, and their relationship is on the verge of getting quite serious.

While It Follows frequently pays tribute to cheesy, no-budget 1950s science-fiction movies (the gang frequently watches them on television), its real influences seem to be stalker films of the late 1970s and much of the '80s. Case in point, immediately after Jay and Hugh sleep together for the first time, he ties her to a chair so he can lay out an unbelievable scenario that he's been living with for a while. There is some sort of entity walking after him no matter where in the world he is. It can take any human form, including that of someone you know (but it often takes on the form of some horribly injured person, perhaps previous victims), and if it gets its hands on you, you're dead. The only way to remove this curse is to pass it on to someone else through sex. But the kicker is, only people actively or retroactively cursed can see the slow-walking being coming at them. And if the person you gave the curse to dies, the curse reverts back to the giver (which seems really unfair).

The murderous force seems to be subject to physical laws (it can't walk through walls/door; it can be injured the way we can, but it always seems to recover; etc.), so if you drive really far away, it will take a while to catch up to you since it can only walk at a medium pace. But when Jay starts to spot a strange old woman walking across her school campus through a crowd of people, or sees a completely naked woman ambling her way, or a giant of a man coming down the hallway of her house, you get how powerfully scary a dead-eyed creep can really be. Mitchell's command of tension via pacing, sound design, lighting and camera work is extraordinary. But more impressive is the way he embraces and rejects certain aspects of the genre. Yes, sex is the crime that is punished by this evil force, but he's not interested in exploitation or judging his characters.

Mitchell and cinematographer Michael Gioulakis present some tremendous 360-degree pans that give us a sense of Jay (or whoever might be cursed at a particular moment) looking around, in every direction, at all times. And eventually, the camera settles on the image we fear the most... and it's getting closer. It Follows spares us knowing winks or overt references to particular horror films. A specific nod to John Carpenter would have fit right in, but Mitchell chooses instead to capture Carpenter's essence rather than ape his style or name drop one of his titles.

The climax of the film is, I believe, intentionally anti-climactic. This isn't a horror film created to set up a franchise, but Mitchell also wants us to know that the curse hasn't gone away. He thankfully also keeps the origins of this curse blurry, understanding that knowing the where something comes from makes it less scary. Instead, many of the evil's nuances, weaknesses and limitations ("the rules," if you will) are left for us to discover as we go, making the entire experience that much more terrifying. Mitchell's sidestep into horror feels more like the continuation of a natural, confident evolution in his filmmaking. Let's hope we don't have to wait another four years for the next step in his journey. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Hunting Ground

If you were brave enough to watch 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary The Invisible War, which threw a much-needed spotlight on sexual assault in the military, it may have been easier to bury deep in your head the disturbing facts brought to light in that haunting film if you don't actually know a woman in the military. The team that brought that film together — producer Amy Ziering and director Kirby Dick — have now expertly exposed the epidemic that is sexual assaults and the precision cover-ups that are happening at collect campuses across the nation in their latest work, The Hunting Ground. And the odds seem better that you might know a young woman who went to college, so no more burying your head in the sand on this issue.

What is both surprising and pleasantly surprising about the approach The Hunting Ground takes to its admittedly difficult subject is that it isn't afraid to name names. A fairly sizable number of colleges and universities are called out, not so much for being unsafe places for women to attend but for outright unacceptable policies regarding reporting and investigating of sex crimes, and punishing the offenders in a timely or suitable manner. What becomes apparent almost immediately is that nearly every woman interviewed in the film has a unique story to tell until they get the part where they report the crime itself. They are repeatedly and consistently met with a wall of resistance from campus police and administrators, more concerned with the reputation of the school than the safety of its students. I understand schools not wanting to get the reputation of being "rape" schools, but it seems that having a reputation of being a school that takes these crimes seriously might be something that a school can brag about as well.

The Hunting Ground makes a strong (if somewhat obvious) case for the role of campus fraternities and athletic departments doing a great deal of the covering up, and it specifically goes after Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, whose name will likely be heard early in the upcoming NFL draft. The lengths to which both FSU and local authorities went to bury his accuser (who details her story for the filmmakers) is ugly and corrupt by every definition of the words, and makes her a victim once again.

Unlike some docs that present a terrible reality simply to open your eyes to it with no real ideas on how the problem can be solved and bad situation be made better, The Hunting Ground prominently features a handful of women who took their shared experience and turned it into a movement, attempting to humiliate institutions of higher learning into re-examining their policies and procedures on reporting and investigating rape allegations. They've have even found a way to have a long list of schools investigated for violations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. In other words, if the schools don't make their campuses less hostile toward women, they risk losing federal funding. It's a fascinating and hopeful experiment that offers a glimmer of hope for justice.

Like The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground is not an easy watch. But if you walk out of it not seeing the vastness of the problem or the fact that rape culture on college campuses is practically an accepted way of life in too many places, then congratulations: you're part of the problem. This is essential viewing. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

On Friday, March 20 at 7pm, and Saturday, March 21 at 4pm and 7pm, director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering will be doing a post-screening Q&As at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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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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