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Column Fri Apr 10 2015

The Longest Ride, Desert Dancer, The Tales of Hoffmann & Marfa Girl


The Longest Ride

I have some questions about this one. We all know author Nicholas Sparks is a fan of his characters writing letters, and that's cool. It's a dying art form, and to actually see a person take pen to paper is unexpectedly refreshing and comforting in this age of handheld devices, no punctuation and lack of capitalization. In the latest of his novels adapted for the screen (I believe this is film number 10), The Longest Ride, the character of Ira Levinson (played as an elderly gent by Alan Alda and a strapping younger man circa the 1940s by "Boardwalk Empire's" Jack Huston) writes an endless series of letters to his beloved and eventual wife Ruth (Oona Chaplin formerly of "Game of Thrones").

But with the exception of a short time when Ira serves during World War II, they are almost never separated, so why is he writing her letters? And why do said letters essentially amount to summaries of the day the just had together? It's like he wrote about the day in his journal, tore the page out, and mailed it to Ruth. These are the things I obsessively wondered about during the many exceedingly boring stretches of The Longest Ride, because what choice did I have?

And the Ira-Ruth love story isn't even the primary plotline here. No, that belongs to the far less interesting North Carolina college student and art enthusiast Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson, formerly of "Under the Dome" and soon to be seen as the lead in Tomorrowland), who is about to graduate and move to New York City to begin her career at an art gallery. That is until her best friend Marcia (Melissa Benoist of Whiplash) convinces her to go to a bull-riding competition, where she first lays eyes on Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint), a former champion rider who was severely injured on his last ride a year earlier, and is just beginning his comeback. And boy is he dreamy. Naturally, a wise girl like Sophia is hesitant to start dating someone when she's on the verge of leaving town, but she agrees to one date with Luke, and things go well.

On the rainy drive home, they stumble upon a car accident and manage to pry the car's sole occupant, Ira, out and save a box of the aforementioned letters before the car blows up. (Next question: Why is Ira carrying around a box of letters that he wrote?) They get Ira to the hospital, and Sophia agrees to sit with Ira for a while, and the two strike up a curious friendship that involves her reading the letters to him. Luke feels slightly hurt that Sophia isn't interested in dating him long term, so he throws himself into the bull riding, despite the fact that it clearly distresses his mother (Lolita Davidovich).

The Longest Ride moves back and forth between bull-riding adventures and flashbacks into Ira and Ruth's life together as a young Jewish couple that begin a small art collection that ends up being a fairly important private collection. There is drama about being able to have kids, but really their life is pretty good until Ruth passes away. Director George Tillman Jr. (working from a script by Craig Bolotin) does his darndest to convince us that these two romances have some connection, but I'll be damned if I could spot it.

As we have come to expect from Sparks' stories, there's an ending that I do think even qualifies as a "twist" — no character turns out to be a ghost or anything of that nature. If anything, it might be one of the laziest conclusions to one of his romances that I've ever seen. I'm actually a fan of romance films that actually take a serious look at what brings and keeps two people together, but The Longest Ride is a gimmick, as are most of the films based on Sparks' material. The bull-riding scenes are actually very exciting, and I liked the way Tillman uses slow motion to really show us how much the rider and bull twist and flail during those eight seconds of hell. I was far more intrigued by the Ira and Ruth romance, primarily because it featured far better acting. Aside from those elements, there isn't much to recommend about this by-the-numbers love story, other than pretty faces, a modicum of charm, and some pretty Carolina landscapes.

Desert Dancer

On the surface, a story of a young man rehearsing and setting up a dance recital in a country where dancing is forbidden may seem slight compared to the total upheaval and explosive cultural climate going on in Iran leading up to the 2009 presidential election. But if you consider the bigger picture, what were those revolutionaries fighting for if not individual freedoms from laws based purely in morality and having nothing to do with actual crimes? So why not dancing?

The story told in Desert Dancer is based on the real life of Afshin Ghaffarian (played by Reece Ritchie), a one-time student at an arts school before moving on to university in Tehran, where he meets a group of like-minded artists and creative types who decide to stage a dance performance in a remote location for a small group of invited guests. They recruit a small group to rehearse in an abandoned building, including a stranger to the friends, Elaheh (Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire), and they secretly practice a dance that is not only fairly elaborate but a demonstration of freedom in its own right. I'll admit the idea that Afshin would allow his friends' lives to be put in danger just to fulfill his dream of dancing out in the open took me a while to accept, but the film does a fairly credible job of explaining the bigger picture in both Iran and in Afshin's world.

The film is at its best when it focuses on the details that go into Afshin's makeup. At the arts school, he gets his first glimpse of archival footage of Rudolf Nureyev, and he has no idea what he's seeing but he knows what he wants to do from that point forward. When he gets to university, Afshin goes to a party at which one student has access to YouTube, and he almost loses his mind watching dance videos of Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly, classic ballet troupes, modern dance and so much more. It's a moment I think a lot of people will understand and make the connection to Afshin's passion project.

Desert Dancer fails when it strays too far from the central story. There's an entire subplot about Elaheh's drug addiction that takes up entirely too much time and amounts to very little in terms of life lessons. I have no idea if such troubles impacted Afshin's circle of close friends, but the way it's presented in the film amounts to a time-consuming distraction. Far more distressing and impactful is Afshin's journey once he is captured at a anti-administration rally after the clearly rigged elections and taken to the desert to be executed.

The film's final act takes place on a class trip to perform in Paris, where a group of university actors are going to perform Shakespeare's The Tempest. Afshin is posing as the director of the production to get out of Iran, when he realizes his life is worth nothing if he's captured again. There's a fearsome act of courage put on display during the performance that is simultaneously quite moving and sadly artificial. First-time feature director Richard Raymond (working from a screenplay by Jon Croker) somehow manages to screw up the film's most revelatory moment by staging it in a way that rings incredible false. There are bumbling Iranian morality police standing in the wings looking furious and not knowing what to do. And a solo dance routine doesn't hold a candle in terms of emotional weight to the recital in the desert. The two scenes serve different functions, I get that. But this climactic moment has to resonate and travel with us out of the theater and into the world, and that simply doesn't happen.

Much of the film feels like an oversimplification of the facts, and if I'm wrong and these events happened exactly how they're portrayed here, I'll let it be known somehow. But it is possible for 100 percent real events to feel made up, and that might be the worst tribute you can pay a powerful true story like that of Afshin Ghaffarian. It's a close call, but unfortunately the minuses outweigh the pluses in Desert Dancer. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Tales of Hoffmann

You just need to see this. Reading descriptions of it won't do it justice. You just need to experience it — the film George Romero called his favorite film of all time. Making its way across the country is this stunningly restored 4K print of The Tales of Hoffman, the 1951 Technicolor odyssey from directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, supervised by Powell's wife and legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Made as a follow-up to the co-director's The Red Shoes and based on the 1881 opera by Jacques Offenbach, the film is a sinister and fantastical combination of dance, drama, opera and optical wizardry in which every scene, every shot is imagined as an extension of the music. It's like a fine arts crash course in one epic, weird and mesmerizing work. And trust me when I say you've never seen anything quite like this.

The Tales of Hoffmann is just what the title implies — a series of stories told by a poet named Hoffman (Robert Rounseville), who is telling stories about his failed romances during the intermission of a ballet he's attending. He talks of three women, including a wind-up automaton (Moira Shearer), an Italian seductress (Ludmilla Tcherina) and a consumptive singer (Ann Ayars). Each of these women is somehow stolen away from him by a different villainous presence (always played by the phenomenal Robert Helpmann). The entire framework of the story, set in a pub, sets up that Hoffmann is truly in love with lead ballerina he's been watching (also Shearer), and shockingly enough, there's Helpmann lurking in the shadows to destroy the poet's heart once again.

It should be noted that most of the actors in the film aren't singing their own parts, but Powell and Pressburger give credit where credit is due during the film's curtain call. The movie is nothing short of sumptuous; the colors pop, the textures of the sets feel real enough to touch, and the singing (all done in English) is exquisite and appropriately built on pure emotion. I particularly loved Pamela Brown, disguised as Hoffmann's young male servant Nicklaus, the one sweet constant in Hoffmann's otherwise bleak life. The story is not so much one of good versus evil, but love versus chilling heartbreak. In many ways, Hoffmann sets himself up for devastation, but he's a fool for love no matter how many times his heart is crushed.

This particular restoration re-introduces small elements of the original film that likely have never been seen in the US, making it the most complete version of the the movie to ever play on these shores. The Tales of Hoffmann is strange beyond words at times, but it's always inventive and exciting, and there's even tension built up just from audiences' anticipation of what is to come. The dance, acting and singing was the best the world had to offer, and the chance to see this exceptional work that has inspired everyone from Romero to Scorsese on the big screen should not be passed up. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Marfa Girl

Whatever it says about me, I've always tended to like the films of photographer, filmmaker, provocateur Larry Clark — not all of them, but it impossible to watch works like Kids, Another Day in Paradise, Bully, Wassup Rockers or Ken Park and not feel something, even if it's a kind of sickening feeling and deep concern for the youth leading us into the future. His latest, Marfa Girl, isn't especially shocking or graphic in the ways Clark has been in the past, but the idea that it centers on a 16-year-old Latino boy living in Marfa, Texas, essentially hopping from bed to bed is a little unusual in this day and age.

Adam Mediano plays Adam, a skater kid who is bouncing from friend to friend, contemplating his first serious relationship with Inez (Mercedes Maxwell), while also falling prey to a 20-something neighbor (Indigo Rael) and involving himself in a strange spanking ritual with his high school teacher (Lindsay Jones). The idea that this largely personality-free kid is pulling in this much action (often in a single day) seems a big tough to believe, but this is Larry Clark's world and we all just have casual sex in it.

But Marfa Girl also deals with some of the adults in the community where Adam lives, including healers, artists, drug enthusiasts and other free spirits that seem to go wherever the wind takes them. Perhaps most poignantly is a subplot involving a border patrol guard (Jeremy St. James) living in the community and abusing his power by sexually harassing women in the area with explicit sex talk. There's one early sequence when we believe he might be redeemed when he takes a nice girl on the date, but his true character reveals itself in shocking ways.

Clark has never been interesting in portraying clean-cut teens in his films, but at the same time, these are good kids, reflecting the behavior of the adults around them. If anything, his films are cautionary tales about how reckless we've become with children's lives. And while the filmmaker isn't exactly trying to solve these issues (in many ways, he's taking advantage of the careless way some kids are raised), he's not oblivious to them either. Marfa Girl isn't Clark's most compelling work, not by a long shot, but it's not easy to dismiss either if you walk in with an open mind (with Clark's films, that's not always easy). I'm essentially split on this one, but if you've liked Clark's work in the past, you may take a shine to this one as well. 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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