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Column Fri Apr 17 2015

Unfriended, Monkey Kingdom, Ex Machina, Clouds of Sils Maria, True Story, Revenge of the Mekons & May in the Summer

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Unfriended

If the idea of spending 80 minutes looking at nothing but the screen of a teenage girl's computer doesn't terrify you or make you feel creepy, you might actually enjoy bits and pieces of Unfriended (formerly titled Cybernatural), the latest from Blumhouse Productions and, oddly enough, producer Timur Bekmambetov. Not unlike last year's more ambitious and interesting Open Windows, Unfriended carries out the beats of a horror movie shown only from the vantage point of one girl's laptop, with little cheats built in. Keep in mind that a person can Skype with several people at once, or play YouTube videos to give us visual film clips that act as flashbacks, or receive messages via any number of social media outlets that can serve as unspoken dialogue.

Our lead character also investigates the possibility that the ghost of a recently dead friend is terrorizing her and her pals by going onto websites and message boards about such phenomena, all the while getting vaguely threatening messages from someone who may or not be dead. I'll admit, director Levan Gabriadze (Lucky Trouble) and screenwriter Nelson Greaves actually make this exercise rather amusing and clever, although not especially scary. The kids on the Skype call are picked off one by one, supposedly by the ghost of their friend who killed herself after she was cyber-bullied when a humiliating video of her is posted by persons unknown.

Although younger audiences may recognize some of the young players in Unfriended, they were fairly interchangeable as far as I was concerned. I was pleasantly surprised to see Fat Kid Rules the World and Pitch Perfect actor Jacob Wysocki on hand as one of the kids/victims. There's nothing inherently bad about the performances, but no one really stands out as being memorable or standing apart from the rest. And maybe that's not a bad thing. It certainly adds to the air of realism that these kids are just random, everyday teens and not the most popular kids in school.

Unfriended has its flaws, but it moves like the dickens, and has a few fun and smart ideas for telling a story from such an unusual vantage point. For those of you sick of found-footage horror films, this is not that. This one unspools itself in real time and does some interesting things with the way movies tell stories. Horror fans that want to try on something different might have fun with it.

Monkey Kingdom

I won't lie: I'm a sucker for nature films. These days, the only times you get to see them are at an IMAX theater in 3-D, and they usually only last 40 minutes, and that's fine. But once a year, right around Earth Day (April 22, by the way), Disneynature puts out these freaking breathtaking films about all manner of creatures, including the latest on Sri Lankan toque macaques called Monkey Kingdom, from directors Mark Linfield and Alastair Fothergill, who together or separately made such previous works as Chimpanzee, Earth, African Cats and Bears.

Okay, yes, the Disneynature people have this slightly annoying habit of foisting a story onto its footage, always narrated by a familiar voice (in this case, Tina Fey), but I honestly don't think the stories are made up. The narrators are often forced into giving dialogue to animals that I was shocked to find out don't actually speak. In Monkey Kingdom, a young female who lives on the wrong side of the tree is treated like a mere peasant by her fellow upper-crust monkeys, all living in an abandoned temple. She gets knocked up by a handsome stranger, and is forced to raise her baby boy on her own, seeking food away from the Temple Troop in rather dangerous parts of the jungle. Later in the film, the tribe is driven away from their jungle home by invading marauders, and they are forced to seek food in the big city. And if you think I'm making any of this up, think again. If these were animated characters, some of this might make sense or be slightly more forgivable. But playing the theme song to the TV series "The Monkees" in the opening of Monkey Kingdom is almost too much cute for any one movie screen.

Shot beautifully over three years, the film attempts to capture both the more typical behavior of this brand of macaques, as well as a few unusual moments in their lives, like when a group of low-caste monkeys must go food hunting in a body of water shared with giant monitor lizards, and the outcome of this expedition does not turn out well for all. Other moments — such as those when a monkey must steal from humans — feel outright staged or somehow phony, as if the camera crews asked the street vendors to let the monkey steal from them. I'm sure I'm wrong, but it still doesn't feel authentic.

One of my favorite elements of all Disneynature films are the end credits, where we actually get to see the camera crews interact with their subjects (or try not to), and how they capture such incredible moments on film while staying as hidden as possible. Monkey Kingdom manages to stay fairly far away from serious tragedy (not all of these films can), making it fairly kid friendly. And honestly, that's who these films are made for, which doesn't mean adults won't enjoy every second of them. The films are meant as a reminder that humans share the early with tens of thousands of other creatures, some of whom share behavior and physical characteristics with us. These movies are examples of great filmmaking mixed with silly storytelling, but the end result is well worth viewing.

Ex Machina

A great deal of the Ex Machina, the directing debut from prominent sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd), has to do with the Turing Test, which, as you know from having seen the recent The Imitation Game, is a test given by humans to an entity to determine if it's human or a machine. So let me give you your own test before you go in to see Ex Machina: if you leave the theater thinking the film is about the dangers of artificial intelligence, you have failed. There are so many under-the-surface things going on in this film that the downside of AIs is barely scratched. Like all great sci-fi, Ex Machina is as much (if not more of) a comment on human behavior as it is about the pretty and seemingly harmless robot named Ava.

The film beings with programmer Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) being selected seemingly at random to meet Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive owner of the company he works for and man who created a search engine now used in more than 90 percent of all internet searches. Caleb is dropped off in the middle of who knows where, having no idea why he's being given this honor. The two men are polar opposites in so many ways, including how they look. Caleb is pale, skinny, a bit nervous, and I'm guessing hairless except for shock of red hair on his head; Nathan is muscular, tan, bearded, bald, and dripping with confidence. He's also something of a drinker. When we meet him, he's wailing on a punching bag, sweating and feeling extra manly, I'm guessing. It's a lot for Caleb to take in. Nathan explains that he has an AI that is ready for the Turing Test, and he wants one of his best programmers to deliver it. Since Caleb already knows he'll be speaking to machine, the real objective is to figure out if the AI has a consciousness or is just pretending and reacting via its programming.

Meeting Ava (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander of A Royal Affair, Seventh Son and the upcoming The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is a bit of shock to Caleb. While featuring the body of a robot — her wiring and other tech is fully visible through a partially see-through framework — she has the face of a pretty lady, and that fact alone should have been a clue that something was not quite right. She speaks in a measured, curious tone, smiles just enough to be considered sweet, and seems genuinely excited to meet only the second human she has ever met. She's not quite flirting, but that doesn't stop Caleb from reacting to her in a friendly manner. She seems vulnerable, somewhat helpless, eager to impress; she even goes so far during one of their sessions as to put on a wig and dress, but nothing overtly sexy. She has more glamorous wig options, but she goes for a simple pixie cut; her dress is less seductress and more Brooklyn hipster's thrift store find.

To say too much about the direction of the plot would be ruining some truly great reveals, but needless to say, Caleb falls for this machine that he labels "she," while trying to convince Nathan that he hasn't. While Nathan is always observing the sessions, during infrequent power failures, the cameras go off briefly and Ava reveals her true mind about Nathan and her being held captive in this research facility. Naturally, Caleb is moved by this damsel in distress and wants to help.

There are other elements at play as well. Nathan has an Asian servant woman who doesn't understand English, and he is very cruel to. And when he debriefs Caleb about his sessions with Ava, he seems to be gauging Caleb's reactions more than Ava's. Ex Machina is not a film about whether Ava is good or evil; it's about whether she becomes aware. It's less about whether she likes or loves someone; it's about whether she fully grasps what those concepts are. Writer-director Garland is far more interested in capturing subtle acts of manipulation and the consequences of such actions rather than seeing what Ava's reaction times are. There's a metaphor brought up more than once in the film about the magician's assistant being a distraction so that the magician can perform an illusion. There's a lot of that at play here, and having seen the film twice now, I can confess that Ex Machina is a very different, though no less fascinating, work the second time around.

Watching Gleeson and Isaac converse and move around each other is endlessly entertaining. But Vikander is the real discovery here. Every move, intonation and expression is carefully calculated. She moves fluidly but also as you'd expect an advanced robot might. And don't fool yourself for a second, she's working us as an audience just as much as she is Caleb in the film. She wants us to fall under her subtle spell, and we do. Ex Machina is a masterfully constructed work — an exercise in complex thought and visual simplicity. And we come to realize that the real danger of AI is how its existence will impact us. When we start treating machines like feeling creatures, what does that say about humanity? Yes, you should see this film, but then you should see it again and again. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Ex Machina writer-director Alex Garland and stars Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Clouds of Sils Maria

Blurring the lines between art and life once again, French writer-director Olivier Assayas (Clean, Demonlover, Carlos, Irma Vep) returns with Clouds of Sils Maria one of his strongest and most probing examinations of both the movie industry and the broader themes of one generation of artists (in this case actors) making way — or perhaps paving the way — for the younger, prettier versions of what they once were. Juliette Binoche stars as famed, seasoned actress Maria Enders, who began her career on the stage in a play directed by a filmmaker who went on to put her in the film that launched her career. On the way to a tribute to him, she gets a call that he has died and she is devastated almost as much by the death of a friend as she is that his death is yet another sign that she and her friends are getting older.

The event triggers a series of events that include the chance for her to act in the same play again, this time playing the older of the two female characters, who is essentially taken over and cast aside by the younger (whom she played originally). In a move that seems straight out of another Binoche film, Certified Copy, as Maria attempts to learn her lines with the help of her faithful assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), the relationship of the two characters in the play seems to strangely mirror the one between these two women. On stage, Maria will be playing opposite rising star and tabloid queen Jo-Ann Ellis (knowingly played by Chloë Grace Moretz), who seems serious about her craft, despite her commitment to dopey Hollywood blockbusters. Being surrounded by such youth and youthful thinking causes Maria to feel overloaded with emotion at the idea that her age is about to end her career, the same way it did her marriage.

Clouds of Sils Maria is set in a beautiful corner of the Alps that feels so isolated that Maria and Valentine rarely have to see other people if they don't want to. The dynamic and chemistry between Binoche and Stewart is exquisite; they come across as great friends, colleagues who can solve any problem together, and still find time to bicker about various interpretations of the play at hand. And they way they slip from the play's dialogue into their own more personal battles is marvelous, and sometimes undetectable.

The film's title comes comes from the same origin as the play's title, Maloja Snake, which is a cloud formation that weaves its way through the valleys of Sils Maria just before potentially nasty weather. Assayas makes no secret that an unpleasant change is on the way for Maria, but perhaps it's a necessary one. The plot, as it is, is hardly the point of Clouds of Sils Maria; it's merely a vehicle to allow these three generations of women to move in each other's gravity and size up what the other does or does not offer them. Despite the sometimes conventional ideas at play, these actors are superb and add dimensions to these characters that only they can. It's a quietly devastating little work that you should seek out for the stunning landscapes and the merciless acting. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

True Story

Like throwing cold water on your face after spending the day walking through the desert, there's something of a sobering shock seeing This Is the End co-stars James Franco and Jonah Hill now working together in this real-life story of the tentative friendship between fallen journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Christian Longo (James Franco), a man who murdered his wife and two young children. The two men are thrown together when Longo pretends to be be Finkel briefly before his capture in Mexico, and Finkel is determined to find out why.

Positioning itself as something of a modern-day version of In Cold Blood, True Story begins with Finkel getting busted by his editor (Gretchen Mol) for fabricating material for a New York Times Magazine cover story. After leaving New York humiliated, he heads to his girlfriend Jill's house in Montana to regroup and start looking for another job. Then word reaches him about Longo's crimes and attempt at an alias. In a bit of desperation, Finkel pitches the story of this family man turned killer as a book idea to HarperCollins and arranges a series of meetings with Longo.

If this were a purely fictional, Hollywood film, the potential for some truly outrageous exchanges and intrusions into Finkel's life might have occurred, but respected theater director (and first-time feature helmer) Rupert Goold attempts to keep things more or less based in reality (or at least it feels that way, and the film is based on Finkel's memoir). I have no idea if the facts of these exchanges are represented accurately here, and I don't really care. Their conversations are fascinating, and keep us guessing exactly what Longo is up to, since we assume it's some variation of No Good.

Both actors are quite strong here in comparatively dialed-back performances, but Franco is mesmerizing as he shifts from mildly charming and naïve to something far more intelligent and conniving. Even from behind bars, Longo finds ways to manipulate people, from Finkel (who's practically asking for it) to his dead wife's family, who he forces to listen to a version of the story of the killing that is pure cruelty. It doesn't take long before Finkel starts to realize that Longo could feasibly destroy his already fractured writing career, and panic and a search for the unfiltered truth becomes critical.

A minor subplot concerning Finkel getting approached by the FBI to give over correspondences from Longo to help in the trial doesn't really amount to much, and maybe it didn't in real life, but it certainly doesn't make for gripping storytelling the way it plays out in True Story. Oscar-nominee Jones is quite good as a woman who is clearly used to being placed second in Finkel's life to his work, and now that his career is on the line, she's been marginalized more than ever. But she still rallies to her man's cause when she is directly contacted by Longo in one of the film's best executed sequences.

With only a 100-minute running time, True Story might be one of the few films I've seen recently that I wish had gone a little longer and allowed us to spend a bit more time with these interesting characters. As it is, the movie occasionally skims through or over certain key moments that might have benefitted from lingering a couple extra minutes. Still, what is there is often a powerful and always intriguing character study of two men (still friends to this day) who were thrown together in history — whether by fate or design is still not certain. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Revenge of the Mekons

With any music documentary, my theory is simple. Whether the film is about a band or musical movement, its only mission is to convince me that this is a subject worth tackling. I don't need to know anything about the subject going in, but I want to feel that it contained some level of import to the music world as a whole. Case in point, director Joe Angio's rollicking Revenge of the Mekons, a film about a band born out of the late-'70s British punk world that somehow survived. The film makes an honest-to-god point that The Mekons may have been the most punk of any band ever, not because of their clothes and hairstyle, but because they embraced a certain level of musical anarchy, in which there was no leader nor musical style that they were forced to adhere to. They went where their hearts told them to, and with that philosophy driving the band, they were, of course, destined to remain obscure, which was fine by them.

The stories of the formation of the band are almost comical, as a group of art students from the University of Leeds (also the birthplace of their pals Gang of Four) got together, none of which really knew how to play an instruments. Instead, they borrowed Gang of Four's equipment when they weren't playing and taught themselves to become a band. A lot of time is spent discussing not just the music, but The Mekons place in the punk world as Jon Langford, Kevin Lycett, Mark White, Andy Corrigan and Tom Greenhalgh navigated the choppy water between commercialism and staying true to their artistic leanings.

Revenge of the Mekons traces the band's history, revolving-door line-up (which has blessedly included singer Sally Timms and violinist Susie Honeyman since the mid-1980s), ever-changing musical styles (most significantly, the move into insurgent country, which The Mekons may have actually invented), and attempts at experimentation through collaborations with the likes of artist Vito Acconci and writer Kathy Acker. Director Angio primarily focuses on interviews and archival footage with the band members, but it does feature a small, important roster of fans and friends, including director Mary Harron, Fred Armisen, authors Luc Sante and Jonathan Franzen, musician Will Oldham, and music critics Greg Kot and Greil Marcus, all of whom attempt to explain The Mekons' place in the world of music.

Each band member is fun and informative in their own way, with Jon Langford (the most prolific member of the band) leading the charge, whether he wants to admit that or not. He's the one who pulls the band together to record or play when he feels it's time, and his enthusiasm for the band's history and present-day configuration is infectious in this film. He's also the one that keeps the philosophical origins of The Mekons alive. The band's critical profile may have grown over the years, but record sales have never been a priority. They play what and how they want to, and even if you've never been exposed to the band's music, by the end of Revenge of the Mekons, you'll probably have a few new albums you'll want to add to your collection, as well as a few new ideas of what makes a great band.

Revenge of the Mekons premieres in Chicago today as part of CIMMfest at the Logan Theatre at 6:45pm, preceded by a panel on the film and band at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 1:30pm. The film opens for a limited run in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre, with screenings on Saturday, April 18 at 11:30am; Sunday, April 19 at 11:30am and 9:45pm; and Tuesday, April 21 at 7:30pm.

May in the Summer

Directed by, written by and starring Cherien Dabis (Amreeka), May in the Summer sets itself up as a film about the culture clash experienced by three sisters parented by a born-again-Christian Middle Eastern mother (the great Hiam Abbass) and an American father (Bill Pullman). The sisters are reunited with their now-divorced parents for the occasion of the wedding of eldest sister May (Dabis) to a Muslim man. May is a best-selling author and fully Americanized woman, and her soon-to-be husband is non-practicing, but that doesn't stop her mother from wishing the marriage wouldn't happen.

Sisters Yasmine (Nadine Malouf) and Dalia (Alia Shawkat) have their own identity issues to cope with, none of which is aided by the fact that their womanizing father has remarried a much younger Indian woman (Ritu Singh Pande) and still has straying eyes. May is having doubts of her own but seems determined to see this wedding through, even though her fiancé is arriving at the last minute because of his all-consuming work. May in the Summer is essentially a better-than-average soap opera with surprisingly little emphasis on how this particular culture might place unique and unusual strain on the film's female characters.

The best scenes in the movie are the ones many may regard as disposable, in which the sisters are simply sitting around comparing their lives, voicing their insecurities, and discussing their tumultuous childhood. These scenes don't forward the plot, but they do offer some small amount of depth to these fairly shallow characters. Dabis's performance is fine, but she's so good looking and dressed so inappropriately for the Middle Eastern location, it's actually distracting. There are several shots of her jogging around town in very revealing clothes, with the local men starring at her that it feels like a comment on female repression, except no one actually comments on it. Very odd.

My greatest frustration with May in the Summer is that it never amounts to anything substantial, and the material is there. Dabis's Amreeka was something special, focusing on a Palestinian single mother in heartland America. But when give the chance to reverse the scenario, she turns the story into something far more trivial. The location shooting is beautiful and poignant; I only wish the material matched the setting.

The film is playing as part of the Chicago Palestine Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and will screen on Sunday, April 19 at 5:15pm, and Thursday, April 30 at 7:45pm Writer-director-star Cherien Dabis will be present for a post-screening discussions via Skype.

 
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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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