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Column Fri May 29 2015

San Andreas, Aloha, Saint Laurent, When Marnie Was There, Sunshine Superman, Human Centipede III & The Chambermaid


San Andreas

If you think too hard about what's really going on in director Brad Peyton's San Andreas, you'll likely realize just how fucked up the plot is. Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a L.A. Fire Department rescue-chopper pilot so daring and effective that when we meet him, he's being interviewed by a reporter (Archie Panjabi of "The Good Wife") about his job...while he's actively rescuing a motorist trapped in her car on the side of a cliff. But when "The Big One" hits the West Coast, Ray focuses all of his rescuing skills on only two people: his soon-to-be ex-wife Emma (Carla Gugino) and his daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario). Sure, he saves a few other folks in the process, but that's only because they're in his line of sight while he's attempting to rescue his family. That's messed up, and also wildly entertaining.

With a screenplay by frequent "Lost" and "Bates Motel" writer Carlton Cuse, San Andreas is pure Hollywood spectacle and a ride worthy of the most ambitious theme park. But it also incorporates elements that demonstrate the best and worst of what disaster films have to offer. I was straining my brain to figure out why it was important that Ray and Emma are in the midst of a divorce. We're given a whole back story about them losing another daughter to drowning years earlier, and Ray never confiding in his wife about how devastated he was by the incident. But they still seem close, and when the earthquake shit goes down, he's the first person she calls, not her new boyfriend Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd). Daniel is sort of a royal prick who builds tall buildings as a developer, and I guess he's the closest the film comes to having a bad guy (he abandons Blake, trapped in a car, when the shaking starts). But once he flees the structurally unsound parking garage, we barely see him again — except to witness his karmic punishment.

But the dead child subplot and resulting crumbling marriage gets far more screen time than is necessary, and it feels like director Peyton (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore and the upcoming Incarnate) is filling time with something that resembles character development, but it's really just padding. The film actually has the necessary downtime thanks to a far more worthy secondary storyline involving a team of geologists led by Lawrence (Paul Giamatti), who is coincidentally also being shadowed by Panjabi's reporter character. Lawrence's team has stumbled upon a way of predicting earthquakes, and is instrumental in getting a great number of people out of San Francisco before it becomes leveled. This may be the movie's way of letting us feel that the body count of San Andreas might not be in the millions, but we know in our souls it is.

While finding and saving Emma in Los Angeles is fairly easy, locating Ray's daughter is much tougher since she's in San Francisco and cellular service is dead. But Blake, being her father's daughter, knows all the tricks of the survivalist trade, and even manages to save a couple stragglers along the way in the form of handsomely nerdy engineer Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his little brother Ollie (Art Barkinson). And if you don't think the fact that Ben is an engineer comes into play later in the plot, you don't know how movies work.

These scenes feel less like filler, primarily because Daddario establishes herself as a convincing action hero in her own right. She and Johnson share almost no scenes together, so in a sense, she's co-headlining the action sequences. I won't lie and say it hurts my eyes to look at her, but in a film filled with physically perfect specimens around every corner (I'm looking at you Giamatti!), you get over it pretty quick and are able to concentrate on what she brings to Blake as a genuinely intelligent, resourceful woman who just wants to get back to her family.

But let's face it, the true star of San Andreas are the repeated, violent geographic episodes that rip San Francisco (hell, most of West Coast) to shreds and spark tsunamis bigger than you've ever seen. The shot you've likely seen in the trailers of the city literally rolling like it's on top of a wave still makes my stomach turn, and the effects in this film are astonishingly good. Quite often when I'm watching films featuring mass destruction, my eyes will go to the corners of the screen to see what's going on and how detailed the effects team got. Everywhere I looked during this film, something was happening — bodies were flying, buildings were fracturing, fire was erupting. The film would almost be worth a second look just to scan the frame for every level and type of destruction on the screen. It's magnificent in its own hyper-violent way.

Despite some of its fluff, San Andreas is one of those rare films that flew by for me. Clocking in at just under two hours, the film is so beautifully paced and exceptionally entertaining that I somehow never looked at my watch until it was nearly done. That's a rarity for me. I loved seeing Johnson take center stage as the film's dominant force and not get crowded out for screentime, as he is in something like G.I. Joe or the Fast & Furious films. His Ray is stone-cold serious in this one, so there are no one-liners or comedic raised eyebrows here. He's playing this one like a drama, and it suits him. That being said, there is no shortage of ridiculous rescues, physics-defying action, and creative ways to knock down, well, everything. If disaster movies of any era have ever appealed to you, San Andreas is a like a greatest hits package of destruction. Have fun having your brains rattled.


What the hell is happening to Cameron Crowe? I'm all for filmmakers changing up their approach, their style, and moving outside their comfort zone, but Crowe seems legitimately lost with Aloha, his love story/man adrift tale about Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper), a one-time celebrated pilot turned military contractor who comes back to his old stomping ground in Hawaii to seal the deal on a major project for the U.S. space program. Naturally, there's a love interest; in fact, because Cooper is so handsome, there are two, and neither is especially convincing as the woman who will change the course of Gilcrest's downward-spiraling moral compass.

I don't expect the Crowe that made Say Anything..., Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous to keep telling the same story over and over again; that would be silly and tedious. But it does feel with Aloha, Crowe himself is attempting to capture a bit of the old magic (romantic or otherwise) that made those films so great, and he misses the mark by so much that you have to wonder if there was studio interference involved in retooling the film, or if Crowe himself didn't feel as close to the material. One gets a sense that Crowe became fascinated with modern Hawaiian culture and the uneasy balance between the military's influence and the native Hawaiians, who are struggling to keep their lands and way of life their own (the presence of Nation of Hawaii leader Dennis "Bumpy" Kanahele as himself seems to lend some credibility to my theory). Cooper's Gilcrest is a man who took the time to befriend the Hawaiians, and it is this relationship that current bosses — including military industrialist Carson Welch (Bill Murray) — want to exploit.

But Crowe seems far more interested in illustrating how the ancient Hawaiian ways work to bond Gilcrest to his military liaison, Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a hard-nosed, quarter-Hawaiian, by-the-books soldier who hasn't had time for a personal life thanks to her focusing squarely on her military career. But then again, she hasn't previously met this level of handsome and charming and broken.

If the film had just been about the clashing personalities of the two dominant groups on the islands of Hawaii, this might have been a better film, but it wouldn't have felt much like a Cameron Crowe movie. If anything, the relationship stuff feels, at best, obligatory; at worst, it interferes with more interesting things going on in this story. It doesn't help that the other woman in Gilcrest's life is Tracy Woodside (Rachel McAdams), an ex-girlfriend from his previous stint in Hawaii many years earlier who seems to harbor the same grievances toward him that she did so long ago. She's presently married to an Air Force pilot (John Krasinski) who is so non-communicative that he literally doesn't speak for long stretches of the film, and he is rightfully concerned about his wife's reaction to Gilcrest's arrival on the island. It doesn't help that Gilcrest is always around their house, hanging with their kids and just generally being handsome and eager to talk about old feelings — good and bad.

Also along for the ride, although not really contributing much to the proceedings, is Danny McBride as another old friend of Gilcrest, who is still taking orders as part of the military detail assigned to the space program; and Alec Baldwin as General Dixon, who does little more than yell at people in a couple of scenes. If I'm getting the plot of the movie right, Welch is planning a space launch of a satellite but it also trying to sneak cargo on the mission that shouldn't be a part of it. The military is there to facilitate the launch and get the cooperation of the Hawaiians as far as acquiring land (in exchange for other land) to expand operations.

As surprising as it is to say, the real issues with Aloha are with the script. Gilcrest is a character without a center. It's fine that he bounces from woman to woman, aiding the military and being friends with the locals, but nothing about the way he's portrayed here gives any sense as to where his actual interest and loyalties rest. Even a pure act of defiance against his bosses near the close of the film feels false and out of character (or maybe the better way to phrase that is that it adds to my confusion about what this character cares about). He seems genuinely taken with Ng, but never misses the chance to sort of flirt with Tracy. He's desperate for career relevance and mending fences with Welch, but he firmly believes in his bond with the Hawaiians. Perhaps most critically, these flaws in the screenplay made me care so little about how these people ended up that I lost total interest in the film at about the halfway point.

There's a temptation to blame one actor or another, but the truth is, they all seem a bit unsure what notes they're supposed to be hitting as these characters, and no one performance is especially lackluster. In truth, they're all flailing in their attempts to get their hooks into these broadly drawn phantoms meant to be people. Murray is turning in one of his least interesting performances in recent memory, seemingly given a license to vamp but having no clear what a billionaire asshole should act like. He's almost too likable for this part, although a dance sequence with he and Stone is one of the film's highlights, probably because it feels genuine.

Although I've never seen it performed, I've always like the title and ideas behind the play Six Characters in Search of an Author, and I can't think of a more apt conundrum for Aloha than that. There are times when I fully expected an actor to turn to the camera and beg for some type of motivational guidance from Camera Crowe, who has made a work that was likely more interesting to discuss leading up to shooting it than it is to actually watch. Even if you discover things to enjoy about Aloha, I can't imagine anyone genuinely, whole-heartedly loving it. And dammit, I like enjoying Cameron Crowe films. I'm legitimately sad to see this one go so far astray with such a solid cast in a lovely, haunting location. But sink into the crystal blue water this one does.

Saint Laurent

A year after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, the quite excellent biopic on the life of Yves Saint Laurent from director and co-writer Bertrand Bonello (The Pornographer) is finally being released stateside. The second and far superior version of the fashion designer's story in as many years, Saint Laurent is an epic, sprawling tale that jumps from the subject's influential early years in the late 1960s through the mid-'70s, featuring Gaspard Ulliel (Hannibal Rising), to him as an elderly recluse, with a fried brain likely the result of too many drugs and no one to ever tell him to slow down. By beginning with Saint Laurent already rich and famous, that gives Bonello the chance to dive headfirst into the constant partying, sex, and drug ingestion, as well as the maestro's creative spirit and energy. It's an endlessly fascinating and winding path of chaos.

What's even more interesting is that Saint Laurent illustrates the destructive powers of sex with the wrong people and too many drugs; these forces actually stunt the designer's talents and creativity, and he seems to work best when he's sober and surrounded by his muses, including models Betty Catroux (Aymeline Valade) and Loulou (Lea Seydoux). Fueled significantly by his love life, Saint Laurent's world and work seem to flourish when he is focused on his longtime partner Pierre Berge (Jérémie Renier) and tend to crumble when he allows his attentions to be swayed by male model Jacques de Bauscher (Louis Garrel).

Every detail — from the costumes to the set decoration to the period music — are exceptionally chosen and add to the experience and authenticity of the story. I loved that the film chooses to focus on both the creative and business aspects (run quite astutely by Berge) of the fashion icon's name, which for a time, he didn't solely own. While Yves Saint Laurent is painted as a man who drifted where the wind and drugs pushed him, Ulliel injects his character with enough finesse and spark for us to understand the artist inside the hedonist. The scenes of Saint Laurent as an elderly man (played by Helmut Berger) are a little more tedious, but they still reveal an aspect to the man's life that is sad yet predictable, perhaps even inevitable. Saint Laurent pulls no punches in its portrayal of this man, but nor does it judge him. Those who got close to him did so knowingly and with full awareness of the man fickle man they were befriending. The film is a portrait of a man who was both easy and impossible to love, and I think the same can be said of this film. Embrace the contradictions of the man and the movie. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

When Marnie Was There

In what ends up being the final film from the great Japanese animation workshop, Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There is suitably melancholy, a little more mature than many of the more kid-friendly offerings the studio is known for producing, but it still gives us hope for better things to come. Being shown in most markets in both the dubbed and subtitled versions (take your pick), the film tells us the story of Anna (voiced in the English-language version by Hailee Steinfeld), a 12-year-old orphan, living in the city with her foster mother and having a tough time adjusting to her life and school. Her depressive state (and frequent asthma attacks) force her doctor to recommend she take several months to move out to the country for fresh air and a less hectic environment.

Staying with family friends, and not really making any new friends, Anna goes on long walks to relax. On one of these, she discovers an abandoned mansion along the local waterfront where she meets another young girl named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka of "Mad Men"), and the two become fast friends, even though Marnie can't really leave the grounds of the estate, which should be your first clue what she really is. The two begin to share the darkest corners of their lives — Anna talks about the death of her parents, while Marnie talks about how her parents leave her for weeks at a time under the care of nasty servants. With his second feature after the more fantastical The Secret World of Arrietty, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi does a magnificent job walking the line between Marnie's dreamlike world and Anna's harsher life, blurring their worlds at several points. The more Anna allows herself to get caught up in Marnie's life, the more likely it is she'll leave the real world behind.

The idea that Marnie is a ghost doesn't quite cut it. It's more like she and the world she reveals to Anna are powerful memories that somehow bind the two girls in ways we aren't aware of until late in the film. As you would expect, the detailed animation style is second to none, and the plot is sophisticated enough that most ages of children and adults can fully embrace it. Anna is a character with some emotional troubles (she lashes out more than once), and portions of When Marnie Was There are quite somber, but the overall impact is quite graceful, moving and features wonderful lessons about growing up with dignity and not clinging to old woulds. Seek this one out; it may be the last of its kind, at least for a while. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Sunshine Superman

I have a vague recollection tucked away in the corner of my brain of seeing footage of BASE jumper Carl Boenish making his successful record-breaking leap off the Norwegian Troll Wall mountain range in 1984, but beyond that I had no idea who the man was until watching the revealing and often thrilling Sunshine Superman, a chronicle of both Boenish's life and the history of the extreme practice of BASE jumping, which basically is parachuting off of a manmade or natural structure, like a building or mountain. It's an offshoot of skydiving, but I suppose BASE jumpers are people who think skydiving takes too long and isn't dangerous enough. Established in the 1970s and spearheaded by Boenish, the "sport" went from outlaw behavior to sanctioned practice in a surprisingly short timespan. BASE jumping was looked at by Boenish as nature's law winning out over man's law (the only real rules he was breaking revolved around trespassing when his team broke into construction sites of under-construction buildings to jump off of them).

The real bonus of Sunshine Superman is that Boenish filmed every one of his jumps, usually from multiple angles, and a great deal of this documentary consists of that spectacular and terrifying 16mm footage. Through archival interview footage with Boenish, as well as more recent talks with his wife Jean and many of his acquaintances, the film attempts to piece together the portrait of a man who never seemed content unless he was trying something that made his heart race and put his life on the line. I'm not sure the film quite gets to the heart of Beonish as a danger junkie, but as a pure document of the time and the creation of BASE jumping, it's tough to beat.

From first-time feature director Marah Strauch (working with executive producer Alex Gibney), Sunshine Superman takes its time going through Carl's final jump, made just days after his record-breaking feat. It's done using a fair amount of re-created moments and actual news footage made at the time, and the way the sequence is edited really brings out the drama (although, honestly, very little enhancement is needed with this sport) and the questionable behavior by Boenish on that day. His attention to safety and detail seems to have vanished in the afterglow of earning that record. Jean's attitude and chosen method to honor her husband's chosen profession is quite touching and wholly appropriate, and the film honors them both beautifully. There may be some that see this film and shake their head at the stupidity of what they're seeing, but I'm guessing if you're inclined to feel that way, you won't make it past the box office. Regardless of your opinion of BASE jumping, Sunshine Superman is a solid human story as well. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

You know what, I'm not even going to try to convince you to see this film. Odds are, you made up your mind a while ago about your level of interest in writer-director Tom Six's closing chapter in the Human Centipede trilogy. To his credit, Six did something almost no horror films ever do across multiple films — he made a completely different style of horror film with each movie. For decades, people have complained about sequels that simply ape the best bits from the previous film and fill in the rest of the story with garbage and new characters to replace the actors who wouldn't return. But Six began his trilogy with a cold, clinical medical horror story, and he moved on to a grimy, black-and-white Gothic horror take on the troll-like, mute loner creation who is inspired by the first film. Unfortunately, Six has decided with part three to take on my least favorite type of horror film — the comedy. Yes, of course there are films that have gotten it right over the years, but Human Centipede III is not one of them.

Featuring a great deal of angry, repulsive yelling from returning Part 1 star Dieter Laser and even more sweating from Part 2 star Laurence R. Harvey, the film's humor never clicks, relying instead on stereotypes, broad physical comedy, and insane behavior that goes all but ignored for comic effect. You can attack the film for its vulgar attitudes toward Americans, women, race, the prison system, and good taste in general, but its biggest offense is that it's not funny, and a great deal of the running time is trying very hard to get us to laugh.

The film works only slightly better when it goes for the full gross-out. A particularly inspired moment involves Laser's warden character having a dream that one of his inmates pins him down, cuts a hole in his side, and has sex with it. But the entire film leads up to what the press notes claim is a 500-prisoner Human Centipede, while Laurence's character has envisioned as the ultimate crime deterrent. Prisoners can be added and taken out of the centipede when their sentence is up, with only mild scarring to their mouth and anus. But the odds of them committing another crime that would get them sent back would be minimal. They predict this will be the newest wave in prison reform. Death row inmates get something a little more special called the Human Caterpillar, which I won't explain; I have to leave some things a surprise.

Outright bizarre supporting roles from the likes of Eric Roberts (as the governor), Robert LaSardo, Tiny Lester, porn star Bree Olson, and even Six playing himself only add to the forced quirky atmosphere of Human Centipede III. As I said, I'm not here to convince or dissuade you from seeing this film. I don't think it's as strong an effort as the first two parts, and I say that as someone who genuinely enjoyed the first film and found qualities to admire in the second. The violence (beyond the actual centipede surgery) has been upped in this chapter, which is fine, but that doesn't help take away the long periods of yelling followed by no laughing.

The actual creation of the final centipede has always been the focus of Six's films, but here, it's not, and I think that's his greatest tactical error with this outing. But like I said at the outset, you know already what your midnight plans are this weekend; don't pretend you don't. You can either go to the film that made the expression "Eat shit and die" a reality, or you won't. Either way, you can all rest easy that our long global nightmare has come to an end. The film opens today in Chicago for midnight showings at the Music Box Theatre.

To read my exclusive interview with The Human Centipede III writer-director Tom Six, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Chambermaid

Paced more like a work of mystery and erotic intrigue, the German feature The Chambermaid (original title: The Chambermaid Lynn) allows us to peek into the world of Lynn (Vicky Krieps, perhaps known by some from her work in Hanna and A Most Wanted Man), a mousy cleaning woman at a hotel who seems most comfortable when she is sticking to her schedules and patterns, both at work and in her spotless home. She's so obsessed with cleanliness that she even cleans the hotel's empty rooms because she feels they might still have gotten dusty from disuse. Lynn begins to take an interest in the lives of those staying in the hotel, and before long, she graduates from trying on the occasional pretty dress to slipping under the customers' beds to hear how they live their lives, no matter how shocking or mundane that might be.

One guest brings a dominatrix named Chiara (Lena Lauzemis) to his room, and after a quick bit of spanking (that we hear, but never see, much like Lynn), Chiara leaves, but only after piquing Lynn's curiosity. Lynn contacts Chiara, and the two have a couple of heated encounters that turns into a friendship that largely involves Chiara drawing Lynn out of her comfort zones and sexual shell. It's should come as no surprise that Lynn falls hard for this stunning, outgoing woman, and that changes the nature of their relationship immensely.

Directed by Ingo Haeb (Neandertal), The Chambermaid isn't about a zesty S&M session bringing Lynn to life. Their encounters are far more intimate and caring than that, although Lynn is curious about the allure of the more violent aspects of Chiara's work. Even as Lynn becomes a more well-rounded, less socially awkward human being, the film maintains a soothing tone and keeps a slight distance from its subjects that makes us all the more eager to be pulled into these largely loving emotions. Naturally, Lynn falling this hard makes her all the more vulnerable to heartbreak, but we get a sense that even if the relationship fails, Lynn will be a better person from this experience.

Krieps gives a even-keeled, sometimes difficult to read performance that is completely what is called for in playing a woman who isn't quite sure where her mind and body are going to take her. Lauzemis is a powerhouse of confidence, with a stylish, short-cropped mop of blonde hair and a mildly androgynous look that make the men and women around her a bit lusty for her. Adapted by the director from Markus Orths' novel The Chambermaid, Haeb takes the time to lets us explore both women's minds as well as their bodies (the film isn't especially graphic, but it scores points in the erotic category), and that allows us to care about what happens to both of them — either together or apart — when our time with them is done. The Chambermaid is an intense and moving work thanks to a patient director at the helm and two smart performances at its core. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run 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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