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Column Fri Apr 24 2015

Chicago Critics Film Festival, The Age of Adaline, Adult Beginners, The Water Diviner, The Wrecking Crew, Welcome to New York & Dior and I


3rd Annual Chicago Critics Film Festival

I've been very fortunate in the 17 years I've been a part of Ain't It Cool News (and 10 years of that with GapersBlock as well) to be a part of some pretty great events. But never in my time as a critic or resident of Chicago have I had more pride in playing a small role in pulling together something as I have working on the annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, a weeklong event taking place at Chicago's Music Box Theatre, this year from May 1-7.

Pulled together by my hard-working fellow members of the Chicago Film Critics Association, the CCFF collects 22 features and three short film programs, comprised primarily of recent film festival favorites and as-yet undistributed works, all receiving their Chicago premieres at the event. There are two important things to understand: one, as far as we can tell, this is the first time a film critics group has ever hosted and produced an event like this; second, each of these films was hand selected by a member of the CFCA because they saw it at a festival in the last year (such as Toronto, Cannes, Sundance, SXSW, etc.) and went after it. There was no submitting films for this event, and therefore no politics were involved in the selection process. Either someone loved the film, or it wasn't considered.

As this event was being conceived, we all agreed that pointing our readers to great movies was our core job, but almost as important is spotlighting work that might not have the benefit of big-studio marketing dollars. So the idea being the CCFF was to bring such films to our city. Some of these works have release dates; some do not, so this may be your only chance to see these films on the big screen.

Our opening night film is Digging For Fire, the latest from Chicago-based indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year as has an all-star cast that includes Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie Dewitt, Brie Larson, and many more. The closing night film is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which took the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Award winner in January, and simply put, it's a must-see work. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is scheduled to attend for a post-screening Q&A.

And not only do we have more features programmed than ever before, but we have more guests in addition to those already mentioned, including Cobie Smulders, Kris Swanberg, Adam Pally, James Ponsoldt, Bobcat Goldthwait, Barry Crimmins, Douglas Tirol, and many more.

The full schedule and all additional information about the Chicago Critics Film Festival can be found at the event's official website; you can purchase tickets in advance at the Music Box Theatre's CCFF page. Take a look and take advantage of this rare cinematic experience here in Chicago.

The Age of Adaline

I'll give this wackadoodle film credit: it sets up its kooky world and sticks with it so earnestly that it's not out of the realm of reality that it might convince you to take it seriously as well. The story involves lovely 29-year-old Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively, in easily the best performance of her career, which isn't saying much, but I actually mean it positively). Living happily in the early 1900s, she got married, had a child, became a widow, and got in a car accident that by all rights should have killed her. Thanks to a well-timed drowning and a lightning strike, Adaline actually survives, but after a few years go by, she begins to realize that she has stopped aging.

Her daughter, Flemming, is getting close to catching up to her in age, and it is then that Adaline decides to go into hiding, changing her identity, and moving away, keeping in touch with her daughter periodically to see how she's doing. Wherever she is, she lives a solitary life, never getting involved with anyone, never allowing her photo to be taken. Primarily, she's afraid of watching those around her get old and die, so she moves every 10 years or so to make sure that doesn't happen, but this rootless life is wearing on her. As if by chance, she meeting a handsome philanthropist named Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman, from "Game of Thones" and "Orphan Black"), and the two start a hesitant relationship that seems headed for love.

In one of Age of Adaline's best scenes, Adaline and Ellis go to visit his parents (played by Harrison Ford and Kathy Baker), and it just so happens that Ford's character has a history with Adaline that he doesn't quite realize, but if he figured it out, it could expose Adaline's secret and ruin her chances of a lasting romance. I'll admit, a big part of the reason this film worked for me is Ford's conviction in the role; he's completely taken aback by Adaline's appearance in his life, so much so that his wife starts to feel truly weirded out by his behavior. Even if it's not in a genre film, it's great to see Ford suddenly giving a shit again.

You might not notice it at first, but Lively is quite good in The Age of Adaline. In everything from her posture and voice to her gestures and personality, her Adaline doesn't scream that she's a woman out of time, but you still get a sense that something isn't quite in step with the modern world. She's smart enough not to stick out, but still committed enough to the time she grew up in to seem charmingly old fashioned in a quirky way. I never got tired of examining her performance, trying to spot her smart tricks.

I was also impressed with the scenes involving Adaline and her now elderly daughter (Ellen Burstyn (the second time in a year Burstyn has played the daughter of an ageless parent, as she did also in Interstellar), during which Flemming is continually pushing Adaline to go after Ellis and not be afraid of loving again. Director Lee Toland Krieger (Celeste & Jesse Forever) has made an elegant, beautifully shot film in The Age of Adaline, so I can't fault it on those terms. The story seems custom made for the Nicholas Sparks crowd, who seem to insist on some sort of gimmick to get them through a fairly standard-issue love story. But there's a bit more going on that just a gimmick. With the exception of a hokey final act that may or may not solve Adaline's issues with aging, the film actually has a good heart. I'm not sure what lessons we're meant to learn about love from this movie, but sometimes it's just enough to watch people go through a dramatic experience just to see how they come out the other side.

To read my exclusive interview with The Age of Adaline star Michiel Huisman, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Adult Beginners

The elements that went into Adult Beginners almost don't make sense. Kroll has never been the lead in a film, let alone one that has as many dramatic elements as this one. He's a comic actor better known for doing outrageous characters on "Kroll Show" and "Parks and Recreation" or playing self-centered dick on the very funny "The League" or in the very unfunny Good Old Fashioned Orgy. Even in early scenes of Adult Beginners, there are elements of dickishness to his Jake, who quickly turns into a pathetic, broken man when Jake's company tanks before it even gets off the ground, forcing him to move in with his sister Justine (Rose Byrne), her husband Danny (Bobby Cannavale), and their 3-year-old son, Teddy, in New Rochelle, New York.

Kroll gets a story credit here, along with his screenwriters Liz Flahive and Jeff Cox, and there's a sense that some of the issues dealt with are more personal in nature. There's a running theme concerning growing up and getting past childhood issues of abandonment, parental death, and general fears that have never quite been erased, and these problems are faced by every adult member of this very broken family. Director Ross Katz (who helmed HBO's very sad and moving film Taking Chance) may, on the surface, seem like a strange choice to direct Adult Beginners, but he's actually quite skilled at negotiating the film's more serious, sometimes angst-ridden moments.

Jake's presence in their lives for several months doesn't drive this couple apart, but it does make them focus inward and realize there are problem in their marriage that they are able to ignore, hiding behind their young son — with another on the way. Along his path to an elevated level of maturity (ushered along by becoming Teddy's live-in nanny), Jake meets fellow nanny Blanca (Paula Garcés), and the two start a cautious relationship. All the while Danny is feeling neglected by his pregnant and distracted wife, so he considers straying. The pieces of this story are not exactly new, but there's something about placing capable, talented actors in these roles and watching them make something substantial out of this film.

The more outrageous comedy moments don't work as well. With small supporting roles from the likes of Joel McHale, Caitlin FitzGerald, Bobby Moynihan, Mike Birbiglia, Jane Krakowksi and Jason Mantzoukas, the more overtly funny moments work to varying degrees, but they almost get in the way of the more human — still quite often funny — sequences. Due in no small part of playing alongside Byrne and Cannavale — who have made solid careers being able to handle comedy and drama so convincingly — Kroll is the film's real surprise and discovery. He's tapping into something significantly deeper than anything we've seen him do, and he seems like a natural doing it. He's able to re-cast his comic timing in a new way for this part, and the work pays off. Adult Beginners is a film that is both familiar and new, loaded with humor and more than a little drama. And when you pull it all together, it works quite nicely. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Adult Beginners star Rose Bryne and director Ross Katz, and co-stars Nick Kroll and Bobby Canavalle.

The Water Diviner

Although it takes a rather odd path to get there, actor Russell Crowe's directing debut, The Water Diviner, is an interesting take on the price and aftermath of war. Crowe also stars in the film about Australian farmer Joshua Conner, who has a gift at finding water on his farm using a dowsing rod. He's quite good at it, actually. Near the beginning of the 20th century, his three grown sons go to fight the Turks and end up at the notoriously bloody Battle of Gallipoli, where all three are reported to have been killed.

As a result of the loss, Conner's wife begins to go slowly insane, and a few years later, he agrees to head to Istanbul, and eventually Gallipoli to find their bodies, bring them home, and bury them on the farm. At the same time Conner is making his way to the acres-big battleground, a team of both Australians (led by Jai Courtney's Lt-Col Cyril Hughes) and Turks (led by Yilmaz Erdoğan's Major Hasan) is beginning the painstaking effort to identify the bodies from both sides and give them all a proper burial. Needless to say, tensions between the two groups is high, but the work seems to trump most of the distrust and resentment.

Meanwhile in Istanbul, Conner is still attempting to get the proper permissions for his trip to Gallipoli, so he takes up residence in a local hotel, run by Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), whose husband was also lost in the war, although she refuses to acknowledge his likely death for the sake of her young son, and the fact that if he is officially declared dead, she may be forced to marry his brother and be his second wife. Aside from simply tracking Conner's journey, The Water Diviner takes time to explore the period and culture to a surprisingly detailed degree, and that raises our interest level in the stakes. Ayshe's troubles are a product of the culture, but she has no desire to run away; she'd rather fight. She and Crowe share some romantic feelings for each other, but it barely diverts from the primary stories.

Eventually Conner gives up going through proper channels and simply rents a fishing boat to go to Gallipoli and waits for someone to take him seriously (perhaps including the audience in that wish as well). I don't want to say too much more about the plot beyond this point, but needless to say, the film does not end when Connor is given a chance to use his divining skills to search for his boys' bodies. The film's final half is quite different and more gut-wrenching than an already pretty painful first half, but Crowe does an admirable job pulling it off as a man that is trying to hold his emotions at bay just so he can get through the job at hand. I wish less time had been committed to the somewhat distracting pseudo-love story, but it's hard to complain about seeing too much of Kurylenko's face.

From writers Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, The Water Diviner treads across territory that, in different hands, might have been a tough sell. But under Crowe's direction and with him locking in and refusing to let us think that Connor's abilities are some sort of trick, the film mostly works, and in a way that doesn't have you laughing at the story it's telling or the way it's being told. Crowe takes great pains to capture the beauty of the land, the buildings, the controlled chaos of the city, and the desolate, agonizing grief that stems from Gallipoli's body-strewn battlefields. It's a tough sell, but it's certainly not like anything you've seen before, and that's becoming more and more difficult in movies. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Wrecking Crew

There's really not much to say about this film, and honestly, if you have any love of music and/or music history, I shouldn't have to sell The Wrecking Crew to you. While many recording studios and record labels across the county had house bands — see the Funk Brothers represented in Standing in the Shadows of Motown for proof of that — in California, there was a large pool of musicians collectively known as the Wrecking Crew. Among them, they were the backing band on some of the biggest hits the 1960s and early 1970s had to offer. They worked with everyone from Nat "King" Cole and Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys (hell, they were the Beach Boys on record, with Brian Wilson leading them through endless hours of takes) and The Monkees (hell, they were The Monkees, too, on record for a time). They endured Phil Spector's wall-of-sound sound, and made Sonny & Cher resemble musicians. A small handful of them, including Glen Campbell and Leon Russell, broke out and made it as solo acts when the age of the session player gave way to the singer-songwriter. But most of their names you won't know.

At its core, The Wrecking Crew is a loving tribute by producer-director Denny Tedesco, son of the late guitarist Tommy Tedesco, who was easily one of the most versatile players of the bunch. But Denny spreads the praise around liberally and gives us dozens of examples of number-one hits that the Wrecking Crew played on that you'll know. The licensing fees and arrangements kept the film on the shelf for far too long. The interviews, archival recording footage, outtakes that let us hear the Crew work out arrangements in a matter of minutes, they are all in abundance and just make a great story even better.

The Wrecking Crew is more than just the greatest mix tape ever; it's the story about session musicians who were largely fine not being known, except by those who hired them. If you had a whole in your schedule, you were failing. If you had to turn somebody down because your schedule was full, you told them yes anyway and made it work. Some of the Crew became fairly wealthy being unknowns, thank you very much. The film is about that rare breed of musician who was happy taking the fortune without the fame. Even without fame, they still have more great stories set in the heart of music history than you can imagine. And the stories told about them by dignitaries like Wilson, Herb Albert, the late Dick Clark, Roger McGuinn, Cher, Nancy Sinatra and so many others aren't bad either. But this group doesn't need testimonials; their music speaks for itself. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Welcome to New York

Were this film made by any other director, I firmly believe that Welcome to New York star Gérard Depardieu would be a serious contender come awards season. But the director in question is the notorious Abel Ferrara, creators of such great works as Ms .45, Kings of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, New Rose Hotel and, most recently, 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Now, Ferrera has another film making the festival rounds right now, Pasolini, starring one of his best go-to actors Willem Dafoe in a work about the final days in the great Italian filmmaker. By all accounts, it's a far more accessible and acceptable work, and should have little trouble making its way onto the arthouse circuit eventually.

But Welcome to New York is another monster entirely, and it's one of the finest, most lingering films I saw in 2014. It's messy and neutral about an abhorrent lead character, who in any other movie would be considered the villain. Based in everything but name on a 2011 incident involving French economist and possible future president of France Dominique Strauss-Kahn (in the film, his name has been changed to Devereaux) and a female employee at the New York City hotel where he was staying, the film takes much of its dialogue from court transcripts of the Strauss-Kahn case. Devereaux sees himself as a creature of desire and pure decadence, and for the first 30-plus minutes of the film, that would certainly be the case. Depardieu is almost always surrounded by high-priced call girls, having rough, almost violent, sex with them, taking breaks only to eat and drink to excess and shower in preparation for the next round.

And in most situations in his life, women are throwing themselves at him, which of course corrupts his mind into thinking that all women want him, and has led to him getting in trouble with the law before (for reasons we see in flashbacks) regarding attempted sexual assault, but always somehow managing to get out from under the accusations. But in the case in New York, a maid accused him of attempted rape when he basically charged at her naked after just having gotten out of the shower. Obviously he doesn't think he did anything wrong. At one point, he actually says something to the effect of, "The only thing I'm guilty of is trying to be happy." It's hard to talk sense into a man who thinks like that, which doesn't stop people from trying.

After the assault, he goes about his day as if nothing happened. He has breakfast with his grown daughter and her new boyfriend, and talks about their love life with them. The man is a compulsive sex addict, and if he isn't having sex, he wants to at least be talking about it. After that, he casually heads to the airport, boards his flight, and at the last minute is escorted off the plane and arrested by New York's finest.

At this point in Welcome to New York, Ferrara switches gears from a profile of sexual predatory excess to a naturalistic procedural that follows Devereaux through his booking at a police precinct through his processing at a detention facility, and it's clear that in both lengthy sequences, the director has chosen non-actors (in other words, real cops and real prison guards) to play the roles as only they can. My favorite moment is when Devereaux is forced to strip at the prison, and then put his clothes back on. He's so hopelessly out of shape that he's gasping for air and sweating just from the act of getting dressed, and one of the guards offhandedly says, "That's quite a workout, isn't it?", not giving a shit that this man could buy and sell him a thousand times over.

Devereaux's arrogance and sense of entitlement is epic. He doesn't deny doing what he did to the maid; he simply doesn't think he did anything wrong because he didn't actually rape her. But the true damage done to him in this case is to his political reputation. And no one feels that more than Devereaux's disgusted, yet somehow faithful wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset, also easily an awards candidate in a different world). She has managed to overlook the scandals and affairs of her husband for decades because she knew if she waited it out, she'd be France's first lady. But this event has likely changed all that, and she knows it. And it has made all that she's endured and worked for likely get tossed out the window. Her rage is extraordinary, and Bisset digs deep to make sure that her husband (and the audience) feels every betrayal.

Apparently some critics at Cannes (where the film premiered) were troubled by the fact that this film was made about an incident that was so fresh and new in the public's mind, but I'm not sure I understand the criticism. Welcome to New York feels immediate and vital and absolutely of the moment. And words can barely express what Depardieu has accomplished here. I've seen him play larger-than-life characters many times before, but I've never seen him play a person so completely. He's possessed by demons that are all self-made.

And while he is certainly a kind of monster, Ferrara refuses to let that be a reason not to dig to understand this man's impulses. And there will absolutely be some who never accept that portrait of a character like Devereaux; and those people will likely loathe this movie. They'll see him as a would-be rapist monster, end of story. But to watch him get taken down to his core by his wife, whose opinion of him actually means something to him, or to be treated like the scum that he is by the New York penal system, that's something you don't want to miss out on.

There's a brief moment at the end of this stark and steely blue film where Devereaux seems beaten. Perhaps he's learned his lesson and will cease the philandering and whores and booze and lord knows what else. And then he meets the new maid his wife has hired, a sweet woman with some amount of good looks. And almost without thinking, he starts chatting her up, and we begin to see that spark in his eye and likely some movement in his pants. It doesn't really go anywhere, but it makes us fear for the future of this character, the people around him, and the world at large. Welcome to New York is a film that has refused to leave my mind since I first saw it. The movie's very existence is meant to stir up every type of strong emotion and spark heated discussion in its wake. It's clearly the work of a skilled provocateur like Ferrara, and it's essential cinema from start to agonizing finish.

Welcome to New York opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. You should be warned, however, that the version of this film that I saw at a festival last year was just over two hours, and the version making its way across the country is an edited 108 minutes, with the U.S. distributor trimming some of the more extreme scenes, which is about as much of a mistake as I can imagine with this film. And mind you, this is from the same distributor that puts out the Human Centipede movies. I'm sure the home video release will be the complete, uncut film, so if you're a purist, you have a decision to make.

Dior and I

There have been what feels like a disproportionate number of films about the fashion industry and its most famous icons (mostly documentaries, but a few features, including the upcoming Saint Laurent). What's perhaps even stranger is that I've liked quite a few of them, especially the documentaries (make sure to keep an eye out for Iris, from the recently departed Albert Maysles, about famed tastemaker Iris Apfel — review coming soon). Making its way through art houses in American right now is Dior and I, a doc from director Frederic Tcheng (Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel), and it's as much a film about fashion as it is about the pressures of being the new boss in a new job.

Dior and I follows the first few months of designer Raf Simons in his new position as artistic director of the House of Dior's first Haute Couture collection, made all the more difficult on him considering he'd built up his reputation designing ready-to-wear fashion, rather than the more pricey and elegant made-to-order line. With the ghost of Christian Dior looming large, Simons seems to be very confident that his ideas will translate, despite only having about two months to pull the line and its unveiling together right out of the gate. Working with a team of veteran collaborators and a skilled team of craftspeople, the new director must deal with both expected and unexpected hurdles, with his greatest enemy being the clock.

Director Tcheng does a magnificent job gaining access to every step of this process, and it's almost as impressive watching it all come together, as it is watching the parade of celebrities, fashion editors, and other press coming in to watch the elaborate and emotional unveiling. We get a real sense of the personalities at play in every step of the process, and eventually we learn that even the most panicky seamstress works best when the stress is at its peak. There's such a sense of pure pride in their work, that there's never really any doubt the line will come together, but that doesn't stop the film from getting quite tense and dramatic at times.

Tcheng uses a device of having a narrator voice Christian Dior's "ghost," watching over Simons as he scrambles for inspiration. The voiceover is used to give us a little history of the company and to allow us to comprehend Dior's contribution to fashion in a post-World War II world. It's almost impossible to believe that his fashion house was only around 10 years when he died in 1957, but the standards that he created have been meticulously maintained to the present.

There's a very good chance you'll get emotional when you see Simons' line finally revealed at a flower-filled exhibition, since just about everyone on screen is crying when all is done, and he takes his final walk through the audience to thunderous applause. Dior and I isn't only for those interested in fashion, trends, or celebrity spotting, but if you are turned on by any or all of these things, you'll be in heaven for 90 minutes. What I was most impressed by was watching master craftspeople do their work to perfection and under impossible pressure. It's a tribute to those who work with their hands and how they can often be just as much artists and any painter or other form of designer. You might be surprised how captivating this movie is. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

As an added incentive to check out the film, Blake Chicago, one of the best fashion destinations in Chicago (and a carrier of Dior), has donated a raffle gift card of $500. Anyone who purchases a ticket at the Music Box will be eligible to win.

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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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