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Column Fri May 22 2015

Tomorrowland, Slow West, Animals, Good Kill, I'll See You in My Dreams & In the Name of My Daughter

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Tomorrowland

There can often be a wide gap between what a storyteller's intentions are and their ability to actually tell the story they set out to tell and get their points across in a way that is clear and meaningful. Clearly, there is no one right way to tell a story, and when we look at the works of writer-director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol), we find some of the most interesting, unique, and emotionally pure means of telling stories about humanity's proclivity for destruction, family, personal expression, and... whatever the Mission: Impossible films are meant to teach us (to overcome our fear of heights, perhaps?).

And it's Bird's precise and near-perfect means of storytelling that made watching his latest film, Tomorrowland, so frustrating. I know exactly what he was going for; he just doesn't quite get there. Or more specifically, he gets there through the most unnecessarily convoluted and confusing path imaginable. In the end, he takes what could have been a tremendous work about embracing intelligence, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking and turns it, instead, into something that is aggressively, agonizingly average.

In a slight way, Tomorrowland shares a bit of DNA with The Iron Giant, in that it addresses the idea that humanity is inherently self-destructive. The planet and all of the smart people that live on it have been telling us for decades that our destruction is eminent (via global warming, arms races, economic downfalls, exploiting natural resources, etc.), and we actively choose to do nothing about it. So the question poised near the end of the film is twofold: why is this, and if some outside force had the power to stop our destruction, why should they bother given that we don't seem to give a shit? Did I mention that these lightweight questions are brought to you in the form of a PG-rated film with many children forming the core cast? But that isn't the issue with Tomorrowland.

Again, the problem isn't the message; it's the ham-fisted way it is ladled into our brains by Bird and co-writer Damon Lindelof (who has had his hands in World War Z, Star Trek Into Darkness, Prometheus and Cowboys & Aliens, as well as being a showrunner on "Lost"). Another truly annoying repeat offense of this film is that it's about 75 percent exposition. It gives us giant chunks of information that explain what needs to happen next, followed by a big action sequence, and then the thing that has to happen does happen. Imagine the thrills...

I don't want to dissect the plot scene by scene, but there's a whole lot of movie before we get any real sign of George Clooney, playing the guy who is supposed to be the key to uncovering the film's big mysteries (or at least the guy who delivers the most substantive exposition). There's a ridiculous and too-cutesy framework involving Frank Walker (Clooney) and Britt Robertson's teenage character, Casey, recording a video message about their adventures (so, spoiler: they don't die). I have a strange feeling that someone at Disney looked at an early cut of Tomorrowland and said, "How much did we pay Clooney not to be in the first hour of this film?" and then they created these periodic interruptions of the story to remind us he's actually in it.

Frank is actually first seen as a youngster bringing an invention to the 1964 World's Fair in New York and showing it to scientist named David Nix (Hugh Laurie) and his young sidekick Athena (Raffey Cassidy), whom we assume is his daughter, mainly because of her British accent. While the invention itself doesn't quite work and young Frank is sent on his way, Athena sees something in him that she thinks would be right for a mystery project. She gives him clues to follow Nix and her through a series of hidden entrances (including a secret passage in the "It's a Small World" ride, which was introduced at this particular World's Fair) to a place where the future seems to have come true.

The film then jumps ahead to the present day, where we meet Casey, whose father (Tim McGraw) works for NASA; more specifically, he's working to tear down the local launch pad. She makes it her mission to sabotage the cranes that are being used to deconstruct it, with the hopes that this will either stop it from happening or that her dad will get a few more weeks of work out of the project. But she gets caught, and when she's sprung from jail, she finds a mysterious pin amongst her belongings. When she touches the pin, she is instantly transported to the same future world that Frank discovered decades earlier, and in a just a few short minutes she manages to take herself on a quick tour of some truly incredible sights.

Honestly, the sense of wonder that I felt during these sequences was about as good as I felt watching Tomorrowland. If you've been to the Tomorrowland portion of the Disney parks, you might recognize a few of the structures and accents, but what I glimpsed was more like a what a city would look like if you set a group of futurists loose over several hundred acres; it's truly gorgeous stuff, and I wish the film had spent a bit more time examining this location — or at least this version of it.

Eventually, Casey and Athena (still a child) meet and embark on a quest to find the now-grown Frank, who has fortified himself in a rundown house in upstate New York. There's a strange sequence set in a small town where Casey attempts to identify the pin at a sci-fi collectable shop (run by nerd versions of Kathryn Hahn and Keegan-Michael Key) that turns into the film's best action sequence (most of them are fairly conventional) and reveals a great deal about exactly who is attempting to find Casey, Athena and Frank, and why. But the trouble with this sequence is that it feels more like an outtake from the more adventure-minded Men In Black, and it halts a story that is already taking its sweet time getting where it's going.

Once the three are brought together, there's a lot of talking, some standard-issue running/shooting/fighting, and the occasional clever idea that usually involves interesting ways to kill robots. I could sense that the film wanted to embrace the idea of celebrating and encouraging intelligent, creative minds, but somewhere that message gets muddled and undermined about a hundred times over every time someone throws a problem at Casey and essentially tells her "Fix this," and she does. One of Bird's greatest strengths as a maker of films that kids adore is that he's great at never talking down to youngsters. Sadly, that streak ends with Tomorrowland, which repeatedly feels like a story that was dumbed down for mass consumption — and that is perhaps the gravest news I have to report.

There are moments I enjoyed about Tomorrowland, to be sure, and honestly, I do think younger moviegoers will probably get a kick out of a great deal of the goings on. It's beautifully shot by cinematographer Claudio Miranda; the special effects are something breath-taking; and the performances are solid throughout, if not exceptional. But this is a film without a definable soul, something tangible that we can grab onto to take us through this overlong (at its 130-minute running time) tale, stuffed full of fuzzy logic and junk science. This is a work where noble ideas and good intentions are supplanted by overthinking and trying too hard to please too many. More a total disappointment than an utter failure, Tomorrowland is a classic case of a lot of people working very hard to produce something entirely average. And to a degree, it pains me to come to that conclusion, but there it is.

Slow West

I'll admit to being a little shocked to see writer-director John Maclean's name attached to this smart, enjoyable Western set in 19th century America (but shot entirely in New Zealand). Maclean was/is a member of The Beta Band, and has done a couple of the group's music videos as well as some short films. But Slow West marks his impressive feature debut that offers something of a twist on the Wild West formula, pairing Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender), a seasoned, ragged outlaw, with Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a dandy of a 16-year-old lad who is foolishly propelled across the American frontier by the power of love.

It's difficult not to spot flashes of young, spaghetti-Western-era Clint Eastwood in Fassbender's rugged yet charming performance, and it made me think that no other actor really took up Eastwood's cowboy mantle once he gave it up. But Fassbender has what it takes in terms of a slow-burn, unsuspecting potential for sudden violence, and he uses to beautifully here. Smit-McPhee is absolutely perfect as the naïve young man from Scotland chasing the woman he loves, Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius), who is hiding out in America with her father John (Rory McCann, best known stateside as The Hound from "Game of Thrones"). The pair were involved in an accidental killing overseas, which means there's a massive dead-or-alive bounty on their heads. What Cavendish doesn't fully realize is that he is blindly leading many a bounty hunter right to the Ross homestead, including Silas.

The most dangerous among these hunters is Payne (the great Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, most recently seen in Exodus, Black Sea and the Netflix series "Bloodline") who leads a large and vicious gang that had no interest in taking the Ross family alive. As the film progresses and Silas and Cavendish get closer to Rose, a series of flashbacks shows us the true nature of the boy's connection (or lack there of) to Rose, who certainly had an affection for the lad but never returned his full-on love for her.

Much of the movie has the pair going from place to place, meeting new people — some dangerous, some not — like a Western road movie that is amusingly lacking in free-flowing conversation. Silas would rather not talk at all (which is ironic considering he acts as our narrator), while Cavendish fancies himself a wordsmith in need of release. They are a terrific acting match, with Fassbender being quick to action, while Smit-McPhee performs as the classic reactor.

The final showdown at the Ross property is a shocking, violent and occasionally just plain bizarre affair that does not play out the way you think it will, and it's a testament to Maclean's screenplay that he finds a new twist on the age-old Western shootout scenario. Slow West is perfectly paced, elegantly shot (by cinematographer Robbie Ryan) work that is not afraid to get wickedly dark with its killings or its humor. Every performance is measured to perfection, and shows us a side of these actors we haven't yet been privy to. And in a movie landscape in which Westerns are an endangered species, it's good to see someone try one out for size and get nearly every beat just right. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Animals

Set in the small geographic and emotional pockets of Chicago where people go to hide in plain site, the film Animals (winner of a Special Jury Prize at last year's SXSW Film Festival) tracks a few days in the lives of two young lovers, who also happen to be heroin addicts. Jude (David Dastmalchian, who also wrote the screenplay, based on his personal experiences living in Chicago) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) are clearly smart, caring and above all resourceful people. The scams they come up with to get money to buy drugs would impress professional con artists; and like most drug addicts, they have big dreams that we feel fairly certain will never come to fruition.

As much as Animals never flinches in its showing just how desperate and dangerous this life can be, first-time feature director Collin Schiffli paints with tones and atmosphere that gives the film a faded beauty that is far from glamorous, but is still undeniably alluring. It doesn't take long for us to realize that Bobbie and Jude's primary addiction is to each other's self-destructive personalities. They are classic enablers, and we soon understand that while it is often quite lovely to watch them together, they are absolutely toxic as a couple. A flashback late in the film shows us the pair shortly after they meet, doing drugs like the world is ending the next day, and while they appear much healthier then the do in the present, the patterns of not being able to say no to each other are already taking hold.

Dastmalchian has made a fledgling career as a character actor specializing in playing creepy dudes (he was a henchman for the Joker in The Dark Knight, he slinked around the edges of Prisoners, and he's likely playing a criminal in the upcoming Ant-Man), but as Jude, he's absolutely charming, friendly, personable, and good boyfriend material; as screenwriter, he's also carved out a role for himself that, not only does he understand intimately, but also he would never get cast to play, even by the most forward-thinking casting director.

Shaw, who has largely played in lighter-weight films and television projects (She's Out of My League), is mind-blowing as a pretty girl whose glow is fading fast, like a bright light bulb just before it goes out for good. The performances she gives when she's conning people (almost always men) are convincing, but when she's strung out, her talents as a grifter start to evaporate along with her spirit.

The film's final act separates the couple as they both take radically different paths to getting clean, which in theory sets the stage for a clean-and-sober relationship, which they have never experienced. The film wraps up in an appropriately obtuse and poetic vision of the couple living out one of the many dreams they've talked about as happy junkies, and it's as tragic as it is hopeful. Animals is a film I've seen a few times in the last year or so; the characters have haunted me for all of that time because I cared about them so much and because the way they live their lives frustrates me to know end. They are both so ripe with potential that it hurts to watch them. Somehow, even knowing that the writer dug himself out of this hole in real life doesn't make it any easier to watch him go through it again.

There's another film opening soon called Heaven Knows What, and much like with Animals, the writer is also the star (although she is a first-time actor), and she has based her story on her real-life experiences as a junkie. And while that film is quite exceptional, it's a vastly different experience, going for ugly, rough, borderline evil versions of these characters. It also reminds us that love can be used as a weapon. Animals never looks away, but its goals are to paint these drug addicts as fully emotional beings who had lives going into this lifestyle and could potentially get back to living once they get out. It's a stunning debut, featuring career-defining performances, and it's well worth seeking out.

The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, May 22, 7:45pm; Sunday, May 24, 7:30pm; Tues., May 26, 8pm; and Thurs., May 28, 8:30pm. Following Friday's screening, actor/writer David Dastmalchian and director Collin Schiffli will be present for audience discussion, moderated by yours truly.

Good Kill

This surprisingly taut and modern look at the current state of American warfare does a great job of doubling as a character study of a warrior without his weapon of choice. From writer-director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, God of War, In Time) comes Good Kill, a revealing look at the world of the drone pilot program of the US Air Force, which put its operators in flight suits, put them in small metal trailers in the middle of the Nevada desert, and commited them to hours at a time looking at overhead footage of their prospective targets on the other side of the world (in the case of this film, Afghanistan). The purpose of this style of distanced fighting is simple: fewer American lives lost and, in theory, less collateral damage since the strikes are surgical rather than the wider destruction done by carpet bombing.

At least in the initial stages of this program, the Air Force used former pilots, like Tom Egan (Ethan Hawke), but it didn't take long for Egan to miss the tools of his trade, and rush and fear he felt every time he took his plane up on a mission. Egan is a good soldier, but he can't help but feel like he isn't a real one, killing from 7,000 miles away by basically playing a videogame (it's no surprise that the Air Force began recruiting from a younger, more game-friendly pool later in the program). Good Kill slowly slips into a far more psychological exercise, as Tom slips deeper and deeper into his own head, distancing himself from his wife (January Jones) and his commanding officer (Bruce Greenwood), who seems to have made the cultural adjustment better than Egan.

The one person that Tom does seem to connect with is Vera Suarez (Zoe Kravitz, also featured in Mad Max: Fury Road), a young newcomer to the program, who isn't afraid to call bullshit when certain missions don't seem as confirmed as she'd like them to be. The situation is made worse when the team is asked to conduct secret missions for the CIA (represented by the mildly menacing voice of Peter Coyote on speakerphone), an organization that doesn't rely on the same system of checks and balances that the Air Force does in locating targets. To the Agency, if you're in close proximity to a terrorist, you're probably a terrorist as well.

Hawke is quite exceptional in this role. As an actor, he's always had something of a gift for language and making us believe in him through words. But as Egan, he's practically a mute, using his eyes, his posture, his pent-up body language to convey a man in serious danger of losing his soul. At times, the film is paced like a thriller, with images seen on the monitor taking on small dramas of their own. At other points, this is an intimate drama, with Egan fearful of simply evaporating unless he can return to flying again. Good Kill is political and personal, and it never lets us forget that war is both the result and expression of both.

The film's ending hedges its bets a little too closely, and perhaps undercuts the sincere and powerful statements it has made up to that point, but that doesn't stop the movie as a whole from being satisfying and quite engaging. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

To read my exclusive interview with Good Kill writer-director Andrew Nicool, go to Ain't It Cool News.

I'll See You in My Dreams

Wow, did this one sneak up on me and knock me over with its simple story and absolutely warm and heartfelt performances, especially from Blythe Danner in a rare and much-appreciated leading role. Danner plays Carol, a widow and former singer who lives a fairly structured and scheduled life in her quaint California home. She has a regular bridge game with her three best friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place), and if the film had just been 90 minutes of the four of them talking, I would have been ecstatic. Put a few drinks in this crew, and they turn into a real hoot.

One day, Lloyd (Martin Starr), a new pool cleaner, arrives at Carol's, and the two strike up a curious but supportive friendship. He's back at home living with his parents and feeling down on himself; she's missing having a man in her life, and is certainly looking at Lloyd as an unlikely candidate. Their relationship isn't exactly romantic, but it isn't completely platonic either. They go out a few times, learn about each other, and part at the end of the day more confused about what this is than before.

The issues at play in I'll See You in My Dreams aren't simply will they or won't they. Far more significant is watching the effect the two have on each other. Carol decides to allow a degree of spontaneity back into her life, and she starts dating a swarthy older man named Bill (Sam Elliott). The relationship with Bill makes more sense to Carol, and she more than willingly allows the whirlwind nature of it to take her over. During this phase in her life, Carol also manages to find time to reconnect with her daughter, Katherine (Malin Akerman), who comes to visit her and is pleasantly surprised by this new version of her mother.

It's almost startling in this day and age to watch a film with no villain or negative presence; Dreams is about a group of very cool, sweet people whose only negative influence is the life they led before they met each other. As the film goes on, you could make an argument that time is working against some of the characters as well. Relatively new director Brett Haley (who co-wrote the screenplay with Marc Basch) has an equally great sense of how to present both the younger and older cast members. No one is pretending to be younger or older than they are; everyone seems happy with the age they are, as much as any of us are.

The best part of I'll See You in My Dreams is watching Danner absolutely own the role of Carol. She's not one thing; she's a complex creature with conflicting feelings about the life she's led and the one ahead of her. And it's her prerogative to change her mind about any of it. It's clear that Carol drinks a bit too much, but attention is never really called to that fact by any of the people in her life. I kept waiting for it, and was thrilled that it never arrived. Much like the film, the role of Carol isn't trying to deliver life lessons on a platter, but you'll find them if you pay attention. The gift of this work is its subtlety, of both the messages and the performances. This is a real winner for audiences of every age. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

In the Name of My Daughter

One of the great joys of my job is that every so often I get to see Catherine Deneuve in a new movie. In addition to being one of the world's great beauties, she also remains one of its most fearless and impressive actors, and some of her best work in recent years is in the films of André Téchiné (Wild Reeds, Thieves). The two have made seven films together, including their latest, In the Name of My Daughter, which tracks the abrasive and tragic relationship between casino owner Renee Le Roux (Deneuve) and her daughter Agnes (Adèle Haenel) during a period in the mid-1970s when Renee's casino in Nice, in the south of France, is in danger of being shut down after a criminal organization sets it up for ruin. In this based-on-a-true-story tale, Renee leans heavily on her lawyer, Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), to guide her and the casino back to health, but when she inexplicably treats him like a lacky, their relationship sours, and he begins to seduce Agnes to gain control of her shares in the company and her vote on the board of directors to oust her mother.

The emotional and business intrigue of the film is genuinely interesting, and not knowing the true story, I had no idea that at some point after Maurice essentially cleaned out Agnes of all her money, Agnes mysteriously vanished, never to be seen again. The assumption is that the money-hungry Maurice killed her or had her killed, but without a body or any evidence, he was never convicted. The final chapter of the film jumps ahead about 30 years, and it is revealed that Renee never stopped attempting to prove Maurice's guilt. Voluntarily returning to France after relocating to Panama, Maurice stands trial for hiding the body, and we are given a glimpse into the events that led to Agnes' vanishing act.

Part of the problem with In the Name of My Daughter is that it's nearly impossible for us to like Renee. She's controlling, uncaring, and seems more concerned with the future of her casino than those closest to her, including her daughter and her business partner. When she suddenly switches to this caring, grieving mother, we're not sure if we should take her seriously, or is she just angry that Maurice ran away with all the money. I'm certainly not implying that I need a likable character at the center of the film to enjoy the movie, but the Renee's motivations for both her good and bad behavior or confusing and confounding.

So much of the film is spent concerned with the wheeling and dealing concerning the ownership of the casino, and key players switching sides out of pure greed, that the actual crime/disappearance seems almost like a pesky afterthought. It doesn't help that both the filmmaker and the actor seem to pre-suppose Maurice's guilt, which isn't hard to believe but it also isn't proven, and I certainly doubt that Maurice would act so brazenly nasty when he's trying to appear innocent during the trial.

A big part of me was hoping that Agnes would appear as a middle-aged woman through the courtroom doors to explain that she left to get as far away from her mother as possible and really to blow the doors off of Renee's self-righteous mourning. Alas, the real Agnes is still missing, the verdict in this trial has been overturned and appealed time and time again, and the film version of this story feels like a pale imitation of the real events, even with the great acting talent on display. It's a near miss, but it's largely a miss. The film opens today in the Chicago area at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

 
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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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