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Column Fri Apr 03 2015

Furious 7, While We're Young, Ned Rifle, Woman in Gold, White God & The Salt of the Earth

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Furious 7

There's a scene fairly early in Furious 7 where most of the primary players are attending the funeral of a fallen comrade. At one point, Tyrese Gibson's Roman says to Paul Walker's Brian O'Conner something to the effect of "I'm tired of going to funerals." O'Conner's response is "One more." In the context of the film's plot, he's referring to the funeral of the man who put their friend in the ground, but to the viewing world, both sides of that conversation have a more chilling resonance, given Walker's shocking death during the production of Furious 7.

I've seen the film twice now, and I'll admit that the first time through I watched every scene featuring Walker trying to determine if it was actually him in the shot or some double or a CGI creation. It's almost impossible not to, and it wasn't about morbid curiosity; I simply wanted to be aware of every frame that actually featured him in his final screen appearance. Whether this was always the case before the filmmakers were forced to retool the plot or not, Brian O'Conner's struggle between wanting to be at the center of the action with his brother-in-cars Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and keeping safe for the sake of the family he has started with Toretto's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) gives the film an emotional core that the series as a whole has never had prior to this entry. As a result, Furious 7 is easily the finest the franchise has given us in its long and checkered run.

The Fast & Furious films have always been hit and miss for me. I've more or less been on board with the series, but I have particular fondness for the original film, Tokyo Drift (the third entry), as well as most of the fifth and sixth chapters in this seemingly endless, always-connected adventure, in which cars were royalty and (mostly) live-action stunts ruled the day and made the cinematic landscape of CG worlds and creatures seem downright wimpy. Those who have long been struggling with Tokyo Drift's apparent leap into the future (a fact that was finally dealt with at the end of Fast & Furious 6) will be happy to know that the circle is finally closed with Furious 7 as Dominic heads to Japan to explain that cameo Tokyo Drift and we even get a new scene with Lucas Black's Sean Boswell (I actually kind of wished he'd been brought into the fold a whole lot more, which I suppose is still a possibility).

But the main thrust of Furious 7 is about dealing with criminal crazy person Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), who is seeking revenge for the team's putting his brother Owen (Luke Evans, who actually does show up in the first scene to play Owen in a coma). It's made clear very early that Deckard is a far more dangerous older brother as his means of revenge are downright outrageous and he has no issues with collateral damage (of the property or human variety). He begins his revenge rampage by taking on Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), and if you think a knock-down, drag-out fist fight between Statham and The Rock sounds badass, you might just have a future in this place. Perhaps in the interest of keeping the headcount in the film down a little, that particular skirmish lands Hobbs in the hospital, keeping Johnson sidelined for most of the film.

If you had to boil it down to its essentials, Furious 7 is basically the team on a new assignment going globe-hopping in search of a piece of tracking software called the God's Eye, and at each point in their search, just when things seem to be going their way, Deckard shows up to wreck everything. If it wasn't so damn cool, it might actually be laughable; but don't worry, I'm guessing you'll laugh too. The film gives each member of the team, which also includes Michelle Rodriguez's still amnesiac Letty and Ludacris as tech wizard Tej, their moments to shine. And it also has time to introduce a few new players to the game, including Kurt Russell as a government operative looking to get his hands on God's Eye and willing to use it to help track down Deckard, as well as Nathalie Emmanuel ("Game of Thrones") as God's Eye designer, Ramsey. Also playing for the bad guys are such welcome guests as Tony Jaa, who has two great fight scenes with Walker, and Djimon Hounsou as some sort of despot who has his own uses for God's Eye.

But perhaps the most impressive new face in Furious 7 isn't ever on screen. Director James Wan (Saw, both Insidious films, The Conjuring) takes over from long-time franchise helmer Justin Lin (who about to start work on the next Star Trek film), and while so many elements of these films are fixtures, Wan brings a necessary warmth to the proceedings that actually makes us care about who lives and dies in these death-defying chases, crashes and explosions. It's hardly worth mentioning the chase sequences in these films anymore because these stories are set in a world where over-the-top doesn't exist, where "impossible" has about as much meaning as physics. Still, the action scenes here are spectacular. I was especially impressed with a car chase on a winding mountain road early in the film; and of course throwing five cars out of a plane, each with a parachute on it to ease in a smooth landing, is just the icing.

I'm aware of the foolishness of the following statement, but the dialogue in these films is still laughable even at their most serious, in particular Dominic's low-grumble, Buddha-like musings about family and brotherhood and revenge. But Chris Morgan's screenplay (he's written all of the films since Tokyo Drift) still manages to hit most of the right notes and seems (somewhat) aware of how inconceivable so much of what this team does is, not hesitating to play such elements for laughs when he can. But even that can't stop the tiresome, soap opera-esque subplot involving Letty's amnesia and how, you guessed it, her memory begins to return in pieces at exactly the moments when they're most needed.

I won't go into specifics about how the O'Conner character is dealt with at the end of the film, but I will say that it's a fitting, surprisingly moving tribute to both the character and the qualities Paul Walker brought to Brian, who was essentially the everyman of the group. He was the outsider who fell in love with a world he was meant to bring down, and he was turned into the ultimate insider. Furious 7 gives Walker plenty of moments to let us remember what a solid action star he was, and a handful of nice scenes with his family to see him relaxed and happy to be living a simpler life.

This film is unabashedly about entertaining you until your eyes bleed and your ears explode. I might also add that the second time I saw it was on an IMAX screen, and although none of it was shot in IMAX, the impact (since so much of the movie takes place at higher elevations) is nevertheless impressive. Here's a "summer" movie that doesn't require you to completely turn off your brain to enjoy, but you can certainly relax it a bit. This is the good stuff.

While We're Young

The latest from writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg, Frances Ha) fills in a perfect crevice in storytelling. It's a film that has a healthy distrust of the young — 20-somethings who think they have all the answers when it comes to knowing how to live creative, fulfilling lives while also being good citizens of the planet. But While We're Young also casts a critical eye on 40-somethings, desperate to hold onto some semblance of their youth, when they felt free, hip and stayed up past midnight while wearing douchey hats and vests. As if that weren't enough, the movie also paints 40-something homebodies who champion the cult of dinner parties and child bearing as pretty undesirable as well.

For a film that, on the surface, appears to have enough spite to go around, it's actually a great deal of fun and quite amusing in its tale of Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), who fall into the 40-something category who seem content in their lives. He's a documentary filmmaker, who is in the midst of a long-term project that promises to be the dullest thing you've ever seen; she's a doc film producer, working for her famous filmmaker father (the exceptional Charles Grodin), who never misses the opportunity to put down his son-in-law's work or lack of real success. The couple spend many of their nights out with another couple (played by Maria Dizzia and Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz), who have just had a baby and won't shut up about it. And after spending time with this babied couple, Josh and Cornelia feel ready to celebrate their childless freedom, even if they don't plan on doing anything special with the extra time.

That's about when Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) enter their lives, a young couple about half their age who are all about celebrating the here and now. They also seem to celebrate all the things Josh and Cornelia consider old school, like vinyl and board games and watching movies on VHS. In fact, Jamie ingratiates himself to Josh by claiming to have tracked down an impossible-to-find VHS copy of one of his old movies, which he loves. And before long the old start emulating the young, so much so that the old start alienating their older friends.

Baumbach has always had a sense of where the line is and when to cross it, but While We're Young is all about pushing buttons in the audience. Somewhere in this film, you will likely spot a bit of yourself and those around you, and you shouldn't be frightened to take a hard look at the way you live your life. Odds are, you'll be just fine with what you notice. At the same time, the film acknowledges that there's a little poseur in all of us, and usually it's not hurting anybody. The details of the two couples' adventures together are just too wonderfully specific not to be a variation of something the filmmaker has likely experienced in his world, likely against his will. Cleansing ceremonies, hip-hop exercise classes, and spontaneous street-beach outings — somebody kill me now.

One gets the sense that the older couple embraces the younger not only to feel young, but because their other alternative is to be terrified of their complete trendiness. When Jamie begins to form a bond with Cornelia's father as Josh never could, Josh begins to covertly attempt to wreck Jamie's own doc, which only fuels Jamie more. The dynamic is fascinating, and I love this version of Stiller, which is not unlike his turn in Greenberg, arguably the finest performance of his career. While We're Young is both wonderfully simple and expertly complex in its observations and takedowns of its subjects. There are no true heroes or villains, but that doesn't mean we won't choose sides based on any potential shared experiences with the characters. Despite its many skillfully awkward moments, it's an easy film to love, which is exactly what I did. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Ned Rifle

One of the truest tests of your indie film knowledge and cred (and your age, I suppose) is how many films by the great writer-director Hal Hartley you've seen. Using a stable of regular actors, all of whom seem to be able to deliver Hartley's dialogue with a type of wistful abandon and droll magnificence, Hartley created a universe unlike anything I'd ever seen on screen but recognized as something very human in its quirkiness. Go pick up The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, Simple Men, Surviving Desire, Flirt or No Such Thing and you'll see early performances from the likes of Martin Donovan, Robert John Burke, Bill Sage, James Urbaniak and Karen Sillas, all of whom happen to appear in Hartley's latest, Ned Rifle, which marks the third and last chapter of the story of a truly fractured family that began in 1997's Henry Fool (played by Thomas Jay Ryan) and continued in 2006's Fay Grim (played by Parker Posey), both of whom also show up to guide and misguide their son Ned (Liam Aiken).

Ned has grown up in the house of Rev. Gardner (Donovan) and has become a highly spiritualized person, but that doesn't stop him from wanting to seek out and kill his father for the wrongs he's done to his mother and others when he turns 18. As he begins his journey, he stumbles upon a young woman named Susan Weber (Aubrey Plaza, new to the Hartley world but fitting in with remarkable ease), who is obsessed with the poetry of Henry's Uncle Simon (Urbaniak), who is now ruining his life attempting to be a stand-up comic while having no concept of how to write or tell a joke. But Susan is not all that she seems, and her running into Ned is far from coincidence.

Ned Rifle is something of a old-fashioned road movie, mixed with statements about the nature of being an artist, a spiritual person, a deviant, and a vengeful human being. As he always does, Hartley uses very specific language, which in turn demands specific delivery from his actors, and in that delivery we are almost forced to hear every word, ingest its significance and process it so that it lands in a special corner of our brain. I remember so many of Hartley's films completely because there's nothing else quite like them. I'm not sure I'd recommend Ned Rifle as a jumping-in point, at least not until you've seen the previous two parts of the trilogy. But if you have an affection for the filmmaker's work, Ned Rifle is like seeing an old friend and falling right back into familiar and welcome conversations. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets Cinémathèque.

To ready my exclusive interview with Ned Rifle director Hal Hartley and star Aubrey Plaza, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Woman In Gold

Sometimes a great true story can be wrecked by poor storytelling, only to be saved (to a degree) by a strong cast. I'm not exactly saying that Woman In Gold is an example of poor storytelling, but when you can more or less tell which moments are total fiction and which are closer to the truth, it doesn't exactly allow a viewer to get pulled in by the film. From screenwriter Alexi Kaye Campbell and director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), this is the story of Maria Altmann, who escaped her native Austria just as the Nazis were taking over and preparing to ship off the Jewish occupants of Vienna to concentration camps.

The film draws the appropriate parallels between Altmann's life in Vienna, living with her parents and surrounded by the city's artistic community, including painters, composers and others. Among those that frequented their home was painter Gustav Klimt, who did a portrait of Maria's aunt, Adele Block-Bauer, which was later stolen by the Nazis and eventually landed in an Austrlian museum, retitled The Lady in Gold. In the 1990s, the Austrian government began a rather half-hearted restitution policy that was meant to restore some art work to its rightful owners, but painting of Altmann's aunt had come to be a symbol of the nation. Nevertheless, she wanted it and other paintings Klimt had given her family to be returned.

Altmann (played as an older woman by Helen Mirren) hired lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), the grandson of family friend and esteemed Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, despite the fact that he had no experience in such international law. Without going into the details of the case (which the film does and finds ways of making convoluted legal jargon fairly interesting), Randol realizes that the cost of such a hearing in Australia to determine paintings' rightful owners are deliberately cost prohibitive, so he sues the government in the U.S. courts, taking it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Working with Austrian magazine editor Hubertus Czernin (Daniel Brühl), Randol gets his hearing, which he fully expects to lose.

Altmann is torn about the case as often as she is sure it's the course she wants to follow, and the idea of stepping foot again in Austria terrifies her more than one can imagine. The film is peppered with a few familiar faces here and there, such as Katie Holmes as Randol's wife, Charles Dance, Frances Fisher, Elizabeth McGovern (the director's wife) and Jonathan Pryce, but while they're fun to see, it also feels a bit like stunt casting. One of the more interesting casting choices, however, is Tatiana Maslany (of "Orphan Black" fame), playing young Maria Altmann.

A sizable portion of Woman In Gold is told in flashbacks to both good and bad times in Vienna, tracking the Altmanns' life and the way the family was destroyed, so Maslany has no small task in capturing the joy and agony of Maria's journey. That being said, those sequences in the film are the least satisfying because they seem idealized, which I suppose is the way memory works, but I don't think that's what Curtis had in mind. Far more powerful in the context of this story is a modern-set scene in which Altman is leaving a hearing in Vienna about the paintings when a random man walks up to her and asks her why "you people" can't just leave the past in the past. It's a shocking, jarring moment that speaks volumes about how little the world has learned from its past mistakes.

Woman In Gold is a lovely film to look at, and it succeeds when its focus remains about the way people seek to recapture and reclaim a youth that was effectively stolen from them. As always, Mirren is that portrait of brilliant restraint, while Reynolds allows us to enjoy his more subdued side as an actor while still allowing bits of charm and humor to find their way into his performance. Strangely enough, humor is a key factor in the telling of this story, and it acts as both a general release valve for the high emotional content of the film and a way of commenting on the absurdity of the case itself. The film also feels oversimplified, though, which isn't necessarily a deal breaker, but it does take away from the believability of certain sequences a bit too often.

I'm giving the film a mild but qualified recommendation, primarily for the strong acting. But somewhere in the world there should exist a better telling of this story. Actually, there are three documentaries (two of which I've seen) that recount Altmann's ordeal, including 2006's The Rape of Europa (which is about art theft during World War II in general) and 2007's Stealing Klimt, which is a detailed account of the case. Even if you plan on seeing Woman In Gold, check those out too to fill in some of the blanks. The film is now playing in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Woman In Gold director Simon Curtis.

White God

Rarely do you see a film that encompasses both the girl-and-her-dog storyline and a tale of complete anarchy in the streets of Hungary perpetrated by said dog. But then you probably haven't seen White God yet, from director and co-writer Kornél Mundruczó (Delta, Johanna) about 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta), who is being dumped off by her mother at her estranged father's house for several months while mom goes on vacation with her new man. Lili brings with her a mutt of a dog named Hagen, whom the father (Sándor Zsótér) was not expecting and has no room for. Before long, he dumps the dog out in the streets of Budapest to fend for itself, leaving Lili furious and heartbroken.

Lili is a bit of a rebel already, so it doesn't take much for her to bail on her music lessons to roam the streets of the city looking for Hagen. For great stretches of the film, the director stays with Hagen and his impossibly rough life that takes him from avoiding animal control thugs to being caught by a homeless man, which eventually leads Hagen to being purchased by a man who trains him (it feels more like brain washing) to be a vicious dog fighting monster. Everything leads to a magnificent extended sequence in which, for one brief moment, wild raging packs of dogs take over the streets of Budapest led by Hagen, while Lili continues to search for her only true friend.

White God was the winner of the Un Certain Regard Prize at the 2014 Cannes Festival, and it isn't just because the film cleverly turns into Rise of the Planet of the Dogs. There are deeper themes of paranoia, tension and distrust among the many factors living in Europe today. The fact that Hagen's mixed-breed makeup makes him something of an outcast and undesirable in the eyes of the government speaks volumes. And the idea that hundreds of these outcast mutts rise up in defiance is almost deafening. Hagen didn't invent his violent nature; it was taught to him by man. We gave him the weapons to turn against us.

The film is a gritty, swirling story of an uprising, but it contains within it a lovely undercurrent of the power of friendship and unconditional love. White God is a rare breed indeed. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Salt of the Earth

Rightfully nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards, The Salt of the Earth is a fascinating profile of photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose black-and-white images over the the past 40 years have captured and personified the way human beings exist with each other in the worst of conditions, whether it be war-torn areas of Europe or the bone-dry deserts of Africa, where people are driven from their homes or starved to death or murdered en masse or some combination of the three. To those who have never knowingly seen them, Salgado's images are often shocking but always capture the essence of the political or environmental crisis at hand in such a staggeringly simple way that we wonder why more don't see things the way he does.

The film is co-directed by one of his greatest admirers, the great German filmmaker Wim Wenders, and Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, who took turns following the photographer over the course of several years, up to and including his most recent set of photos that moves from portraits to landscape images of parts of the globe that have gone largely untouched by the modern world, as something of a tribute to the planet that he'd almost given up hope on after seeing so much devastation and evil.

Rarely has a film, even a documentary, captured the process and philosophy of an artist quite like The Salt of the Earth does with Salgado. The film allows us to linger on both his images and his working style. The contrast of color film with his stark B&W photos is extraordinary, and there are portions of the film that are difficult to endure as a profile of human suffering. In a way, the film takes us on the same journey and emotional ride that Salgado does, and thankfully his latest project is more hopeful and uplifting. It's an enriching and fulfilling work, and you'd be missing out on one of the best docs of the year if you didn't catch it. The film opens today in Chicago 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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