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Column Fri Jun 05 2015

Entourage, Spy, Insidious: Chapter 3, Love & Mercy, The Nightmare & Blind

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2015 Justice Film Festival


In the interest of keeping you abreast of the latest worthy film festivals around town, the third annual Justice Film Festival is happening this weekend, June 5-7, at Film Row Cinema at Columbia College, 1104 S. Wabash Ave. The festival includes 12 feature films and seven shorts, kicking off tonight at 9:30pm with a premiere screening of Captive, directed by Jerry Jameson and starring David Oyelowo (Selma) and Kate Mara ("House of Cards"). The film is set for release in mid-September.

General admission ($25) and VIP tickets ($55) are currently available for sale at justicefilmfest.com. VIP tickets include reserved seating at all screenings and access to the rooftop premiere party on Saturday, June 6, where attendees will have the opportunity to meet and network with filmmakers, distributors, social entrepreneurs and justice advocates from across the country.

Entourage

If my memory is still what it was, I remember finding the first three or four seasons of HBO's series "Entourage" really fascinating and, yes, entertaining. As someone who observes and analyzes the byproduct of the world on display in the series from a distance, I was intrigued at this peak behind the curtain known as Fame, in which there seem to be two kinds of people: the players and the hangers on. And pretty much everyone in the second group is desperate to get in the first group.

In many ways, Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) was the least interesting guy in the show because it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that he would eventually become successful for his acting (whether he was any good at it is another question). As a result, your eyes tended to drift to those surround him — his hometown pals Eric (Kevin Connolly) and Turtle (Jerry Ferrara) and his brother Johnny (or Drama, played by Kevin Dillon — the in joke being that in real life Dillon is the lesser known/respected brother of Matt Dillon). And this tight-knit crew supported each other's Hollywood dreams in all their unlikely forms. Eric, or "E," wanted to a be talent manager/film producer of some sort, but his storylines always seemed to be supplanted by the relationship drama between him and on-again/off-again girlfriend Sloan (Emmanuelle Chriqui), who, in the film, is many months pregnant with E's baby, even though the two aren't together.

The most desperate to be seen as some more than just Vince's driver, Turtle, started a tequila company and made millions (exactly how many remains a mystery) selling it to Mark Cuban, so now he chooses to drive Vince & Co. around. Drama is and shall forever be a classic struggling actor, still going on auditions, still taking supporting roles in his brother's big-budget films, still staring at the sun of fame until his eyes go blind. The fifth member of this unbreakable wolfpack is Vinnie's agent Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven, who won three Emmys for the role over eight seasons), who, at best, tolerated the other three guys on behalf of his favorite client.

What made "Entourage" pop was that it felt authentic for a time. Vince and Ari climbed the success ladder together, and many of Hollywood's most famous faces (actors, executives, models, etc.) made cameos on the show to add to the feel of so many celebrities packed in such a tight piece of real estate, always bumping into each other. So why am I spending so much time talking about "Entourage" the TV show? Because there is literally no distinguishing feature in its transition to the big screen. There is nothing new and zero added depth anywhere to be found. Entourage the movie is simply the "Further Adventures of..." So expect more gratuitous cameos (even more actually, since Vince is now full-fledge famous and Ari is a studio head); more of E trying to be a producer; more of Vince upping his game, this time as a director of his next project; more of Turtle driving and running point on corralling ladies to party with; more of Drama struggling for acting work; and more of Ari wheeling and dealing and yelling and bursting blood vessels in his head.

The fact that creator-writer-director Doug Ellin couldn't be bothered to build on his and the show's success is telling. And why this film had to be on the big screen and not a straight-to-HBO is beyond me. The fact that there are actually people out there saying "If you were a fan of the show, you're going to love this" is maddening because it implies that fans of the show don't want anything more than what the show gave them for nearly 10 years (and let's be honest, the last couple years of "Entourage" were abysmal). Hell, even some small vertical movement would have been a step in the right direction. But no, the movie does exactly what we've seen a hundred times before — Vince dates someone famous (in this case, it's supermodel/Gone Girl star Emily Ratajkowski); Turtle finds a soul mate in UFC Champion Ronda Rousey, and the two begin a truly odd courtship; Drama has his hopes lifted when Vince manages to get him an important role in the film he's directing, one that could actually spell Oscar; and E is having baby and barely gives a shit.

All of that being said and despite the been-there-done-that qualities of the story, the small segments of the film that offer something new are the best parts, most of which revolve around Vince's movie, an updated take on the Jekyll and Hyde story simply title Hyde. We see very little of the actual film, but as "Entourage" always taught us, the actual art is the least important part in the Hollywood equation. The "new" comes in the form of Texas financier Larsen McCredle (Billy Bob Thornton) and his idiot son Travis (Haley Joel Osment), neither of whom know a lick about making movies, but they (especially Travis) know a whole lot about writing checks and giving their unsolicited opinion on Hyde. It was actually fun to watch Ari have to face these two pushy money men and show a type of restraint because he actually needs more cash to finish Vince's over-budget epic. Osment is particularly convincing as a sleazy, entitled jackass who comes back to Hollywood with Ari to oversee the final stages of post production and give his notes on Vince's movie.

What's particularly strange about Entourage is that the few people who get to watch Hyde think it's genius, so the film just becomes a waiting game to see how Vince and Ari will come out on top with their uncut version of the movie. As a result, the film is padded with returning faces, including Debi Mazar as Vince's publicist, Constance Zimmer as studio exec Dana Gordon, Rex Lee as Ari's former assistant Lloyd, Perrey Reeves as Mrs. Ari, and even Vince's directing buddy Billy Walsh (Rhys Coiro); as well as an outlandish number of stupid cameos from Liam Neeson to Pharrell to Entourage executive producer (and inspiration for Chase's character) Mark Wahlberg, who does manage to get a Ted 2 plug in for his troubles. And let's not forget the parade of nameless hot bodies that drift in and out of party scenes, in and out of pools and bars and clubs and restaurants. I hate to say it, but it gets tiresome real fast.

I'll admit, I get a chuckle that, with the exception of Piven (who was kind of famous before the show), none of the lead actors in Entourage have elevated their celebrity due to the show. Even stranger is that Jerry Ferrara might be the most famous one in the cast thanks to appearances in the two Think Like a Man movies (he's the white guy), Lone Survivor and Battleship. Because Piven gets so much screen time and is still so much barely contained lightning in bottle as Ari, the film still manages have moments of electricity. But as a fan of the show for a great deal of its run, I was genuinely shocked at how much the film seems to loathe its fanbase by giving it more of the same and not an iota extra. Entourage represents the bare minimum effort, and that will sink in almost immediately and slowly crush you. Enjoy the contempt!

Spy

Much as he did with his previous film, The Heat, writer-director Paul Feig has taken a fairly tired genre that has been worked and reworked countless times, and injected it with a little electricity — in this case, he once again brings in his go-to leading actor Melissa McCarthy to make the film funny, encourage the other actors to do the same, but without turning Spy into a parody or spoof. He also turns the tables on the genre by making a great deal of the film into a workplace comedy — one of the more interesting workplaces on the planet, mainly the CIA offices where the people supplying in-the-field spies with their intel.

McCarthy's Susan Cooper has formed a significant partnership with her Bond-like counterpart, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She feeds him satellite data and other important information to help keep him alive and stop the transfer of a nuclear weapon. But he is captured and apparently murdered by a criminal organization led by Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). In the process, Rayna get the names and faces of every CIA field agent, placing all of their lives in danger. Susan's boss (Alison Janney) decides the agency needs to send an unknown agent into the world to stop Rayna from delivering the bomb to another criminal type, Sergio De Luca (Bobby Cannavale), and Susan volunteers to be that agent, if only to avenge Fine's death. Despite the protest of a chorus of other, more qualified agents (led by the truly hilarious Jason Statham as Agent Rick Ford). But before long, Susan is jetting off to Europe to save the world.

Unlike a few of McCarthy's other recent lead roles, she opts to not play Susan as clumsy or ridiculous or otherwise brain impaired. She's a trained agent, just without a lot of field experience, so there is a learning curve. But more importantly, she's smart, resourceful and quick thinking on her feet. Her best work buddy, Nancy (Miranda Hart of "Call the Midwife"), is now the voice in her head, and the pair manage to slip Susan into Rayna's criminal world.

Above all other things, Spy is just damn funny. I first saw the film at SXSW in March, thought it was great, but chose to see it again to make sure I wasn't just caught up in the premiere-screening atmosphere. Turns out, I laughed more the second time. We haven't seen this version of McCarthy on the big screen before, and I love how she responds to her fellow agents' treating her like an amateur. It's her frustration and determination to show she's ready for the job that get the biggest laughs. And when Peter Serafinowicz shows up as Aldo, a handsy Italian agent working with Cooper, the humor truly kicks into overdrive.

Byrne is also quite good with her superior attitude, confusing accent, and mile-high hairstyle; she provides Spy with a touch of old-school Bond villain and balances McCarthy's broader sense of comedy (lest you think I'm suggesting that, although McCarthy is dialing it back, she's by no means turning it off). And while director Feig is emerging as one of the great makers of comedic films these days (we'll see how Ghostbusters turns out), he's just as concerned with getting the action material just right. Fight scenes are brutal and bloody; there's a real body count; and the explosions are plentiful. There's a one-on-one fight scene in a kitchen between McCarthy and supermodel Nargis Fakhri as a cold-blooded assassin, and it's a kickass fight, almost never played for laughs (sometimes silly kitchen appliances are used as weapons, but that's a ridiculous as it gets). It's so violent, in fact, that it's tough to watch because the pain looks and sounds legit.

The combination of taking the genre seriously while still making room for big laughs is the key to Spy being so damn funny. The biggest shocker for some might be Statham's character, whose constant game of one upmanship with McCarthy reaches atomic proportions at times. Those of us who remember Statham from his early days with Guy Ritchie might not be quite as surprised by his keen comic sensibilities, but it's nice to be reminded. With Spy, you go in for the laughs, but you'll get reeled in by the adventure; two great tastes that go great together.

To read my exclusive interview with Spy writer-director Paul Feig, go to Ain't It Cool News.


Insidious: Chapter 3


In one of the few sensible directorial switches in horror history, Insidious 1-3 and Saw 1-3 writer Leigh Whannell (who also wrote The Mule and the upcoming Cooties) takes over the reigns on the Insidious franchise from the increasingly busy James Wan (The Conjuring, Furious 7 and the recently announced Aquaman movie) to take us back, not so much to the beginning of psychic Elise Rainier's (Lin Shaye) career as a remover of evil spirits, but more like the job right before the Lambert family entered her life. In fact, the case that is featured in Insidious: Chapter 3 is actually one that drags Elise out of self-induced retirement after she learns that an old hag demon is lying in wait to kill her the next time she steps foot in the ghostly plain known as The Further.

In fact, a great deal of Insidious 3 is spent setting up events in the more familiar early chapters. This time around Elise helps out the Brenner family, in particular teenage daughter Quinn (Stefanie Scott of the Disney series "A.N.T. Farm," and the upcoming Jem and the Holograms feature), who is desperate to get in touch with her recently departed mother. She seeks out Elise for a reading, which is given reluctantly and with the warning that any attempt to call out to the dead can be heard by all other spirits, including ones you may not want hanging around your life. But after Quinn tries on her own to contact her mom, she is severely injured, leaving both her legs broken and forcing her to spend days on end alone in bed, making her an easy, non-moving target for a particularly nasty ghost called the Breathing Man (he wears an oxygen mask) that terrorizes the small apartment she shares with her father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) and younger brother.

In addition to introducing us to The Further and the old hag demon that makes life miserable for Elise, Insidious 3 just happens to show us that the Brenner haunting was the first such case to bring Elise together with the ghosthunters Tucker (Angus Sampson) and Specs (writer-director Whannell), who are essentially frauds with a web series until Elise legitimizes their careers as documenters of the dead. As with most horror series' backstory attempts, all of this setting up what is to come/what we've actually already seen isn't particularly scary but at least it puts the audience in a familiar place. Still, I wish Whannell had spent a bit more time making us care about the current family crisis than getting us mentally prepared for the Lambert's ordeal, which is even referenced here as the reason Elise abandoned the medium business in the first place.

I did like the treatment of Quinn in this story, as a self-sufficient teen who is tragically forced to adopt the mother role in the family. She's not overtly sexualized, as many girls her age are in this genre, and that certainly makes it easier to take her abuse-by-ghost more seriously. Scott is one of the best parts of Insidious 3; she's not a hapless victim, but a girl who is willing to fight back, which makes her inevitable possession by this grotesque creature all the more tragic.

But when it comes down to it, all that really matters about Insidious: Chapter 3 is whether it delivers the scares, which it does to a degree. Focusing far more than Wan ever did on jump scares than actual sustained tension and suspense, Whannell still shows signs of taking the time to get to know his horror craft as a filmmaker. There are a handful of fairly effective moments that work at sustained creepy mode, but Whannell seems to lack confidence that such sequences can carry the day; they can. And so out come scene after scene of things jumping out of the dark for a single scream, followed immediately by the realization that what just scared you was part of a dream or otherwise not real.

At this point in the series, a third chapter is a chance to get to learn a little more about what makes familiar characters tick in ways that we didn't in the first two Insidious films. Again, this is particularly scary, but they also don't dwell on it long enough to stand in the way of moving the Brenners' story forward. If Whannell and his team continue making films in this series, they're going to have to amp up the emotional component and give us something that takes the time to get under our skin rather than simply in our face. Still, a decent effort from a first-time director of horror is always appreciated.

Love & Mercy

The great mystery to crack about adapting Brian Wilson's life story is not how much of it to tell, but how little. By zeroing in on two of the most important periods of his life (for entirely different reasons), the makers of Love & Mercy are able to cover a lot of emotional ground without actually covering much chronological ground. In a way, these two eras in Wilson's personal and creative life represent bookends of his long and well-chronicled mental illness. Not to imply that he overcame his condition in the more recent period of the 1980s, but he did get to a point where he could finally escape the confines of his self-imposed home exile and make his way out into the world to fall in love again.

Working from a masterful screenplay from Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner, and directed by second-time filmmaker Bill Pohlad (best known as a producer on such films as 12 Years A Slave, The Tree of Life and Wild), Love & Mercy glides fluidly from 1960s-era Wilson (focusing primarily on the years when he made Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile sessions) and the mid-1980s, when he was under the constant watch of Dr. Eugene Landy (a sometimes maniacal Paul Giamatti). The early-years Wilson (played with an eerie serenity by Paul Dano) shows the master composer in the studio and shunning the touring lifestyle with the Beach Boys in order to focus on recording with the studio musician collective known as the Wrecking Crew. Those scenes are some of the must fundamentally informative ones I've ever seen about the artistic creative process, but it also shows us the early stages of Wilson hearing things in his head that he can't shake, no matter how much music he churned out.

Without diving into Wilson's childhood, Love & Mercy still gives us plenty of clues about abuses suffered largely at his father's hands and words. Wilson was deaf in one ear after being hit so hard in the side of the head by his father that it blew out his eardrum. But his father's calculated non-support carries over to the adult Wilson as well; an early listen to "God Only Knows" leads his father to declare it an abysmal "suicide note." And Dano embodies Wilson down to the core. He moves like him; is both shy and appropriately confident, depending on the setting; and even sounds a bit like him when singing (the film uses both actual Beach Boys tracks and a bit of raw vocals from Dano).

And then there's John Cusack's very different take on Wilson, and it should be different because Wilson was sedated, broken and turned into Dr. Landy's cash cow for years. But one day when he's out with Landy's goon looking for a new car, he runs into Cadillac salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), who finds Wilson fascinating before she even realizes who he is. The two begin a heavily chaperoned, highly tentative relationship that gives the Love & Mercy its heart and soul. Somehow, amid the peering eyes and endless rules of conduct foisted upon Melinda by Landy, the two manage to fall for each other and give Wilson something to strive to achieve — to break free and be allowed to fall in love again. It's a painful process to witness, but Cuscak is so crushingly good as Wilson in these moments, you can see him dare to allow hope and happiness back into his life.

Of course the music peppered throughout Love & Mercy is terrific; but you knew that going in, which is not to say the music is insignificant in the film. Quite the opposite; the music propels everything forward. In the '60s scenes, the Pet Sounds recording make the other Beach Boys nervous, especially Mike Love (Jake Abel), who is really painted as the most narrow-minded musician the world has ever known. I love the scenes with Wilson collaborating with Van Dyke Parks (Max Schneider), and how he is essentially thrown out of the Smile sessions by the other members of the band for aiding Wilson in his crazy musical dreams. Director Pohland keeps the film moving between the two eras, but it's always clear why he has juxtaposed two moments from different time periods.

I don't believe you have to love or even care about the Beach Boys music to thoroughly enjoy Love & Mercy; if you chose not to focus on the music, there's plenty of soul and spirit in the stories to keep you engaged. The swirling score by Atticus Ross is particularly haunting, as he takes slivers of Beach Boys raw tapes and mixes them together into his interpretation of what might have been going on in Wilson's head. It might actually be too dangerous to listen to independent of the film. Love & Mercy is daring and bold, even in the scenes where it misses the mark. But from out of the chaos, somehow, it all comes together poetically. I can't think of a better way for a film about Brian Wilson to move out into the world.

To read my exclusive interview with Love & Mercy star John Cusack and subject Brian Wilson, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Nightmare

When I was a kid, I had a handful of bouts with something that is now called sleep paralysis, and until watching the tense and informative documentary The Nightmare, I didn't know the condition had a name and that those who suffer from it have similar terrifying visions attached to their episodes. The way I remember it (and it seems to corroborated by the eight sufferers featured in the film) is that you'd wake up, usually from a bad dream, but be unable to move due to an overpowering feeling of being held down. Your eyes could look around, but you were powerless in every other way, and there was always something horrifying in the room with you, waiting to do you unspecified harm. You're absolutely positive that you're wide awake, but many times you aren't, or at least the lines between your sleeping and wide awake states seem to blur in petrifying ways.

I was lucky, since this condition didn't happen often, nor did it follow me into adulthood. But the subjects of director Rodney Ascher (Room 237) have suffered for most of their lives, often seeing such things as a shadowy man in the room or an angry old hag, or some creature or animals sitting on their chest, making it hard to breathe. Sometimes the visions communicate in warning or threatening tones. At least one of the doc's subject assumes their experience was an extraterrestrial visit, which seems about as believable as anything else posited in the film. In every case, as the subject detail their various frightening experiences, Ascher re-creates the nightmarish visions as much as one can with a documentary budget, but a few of these sequences are pretty damn scary, which qualifies the film as a horror films as well.

Much like Room 237 (a film about various hidden messages in the film The Shining), there are a whole lot of ideas about what is going on but no actual confirmation. If you know me well, you know that I don't put much stock in people telling me their dreams. It's not that I don't believe that people dream — of course they do — but the ridiculous (often tedious) level of detail people go into about their dreams feels fake every single time, and I suspect a whole lot of "filling in" is going on the storytelling process. And that's pretty much what I think is going on in The Nightmare as well. The stories are great, but I also think a whole lot of embellishment is going on. I'm not even sure I'd count that as a strike against the film, but if people giving monologues about their horrific dreams isn't your cup of tea, stay far away.

More bothersome about the film is that is does very little by way of explaining the phenomenon or at least giving us a few plausible, educated guesses. But such scientific babble may have felt out of place in a film that is very much about personal experience and the psychological trauma of living with this condition as a regular part of one's life. As a film lover, one of the more interesting parts of the film is the realization that at least one of the subjects has what the Insidious films have more or less drawn their horror images directly from; no wonder they've been so successful — they're apparently actually tapping directly into your nightmares. If you're ready for a low-level scary night at the movies, The Nightmare is a quick, painless, frequently thrilling exercise in spooky bedtime stories gone horribly awry. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Blind

Marking writer Eskil (Louder Than Bombs; Oslo, August 31) Vogt's first time as a writer-director, Blind is the story of a Norwegian woman named Ingrid (Ellen Dorrit Peterson) who has recently gone blind and is adjusting to both more obvious life changes — such as getting around her house or preparing a simple meal alone — and more obtuse issues like the uncanny sense that there is always someone in the house watching her, usually her husband (Henrick Rafaelson) — whenever he's not out cheating on her with other women, so she fears.

Afraid to leave the safe confines of her home, Ingrid finds herself retreating into a world in which she can't always distinguish reality and paranoid fantasy. She imagines her husband with his mistress (Vera Vitali), whom he gets pregnant. The mistress has her own set of issues, being recently divorced, sharing custody of her child with her ex-spouse. Or is any of that actually true? Sometimes it's clear what is fantasy, and other times it's impossible to distinguish. It doesn't help that she's writer with an already-active imagination, or that she drinks far too much these days, helping to fuel her anxiety all the more. It's no wonder the film's screenplay won a prize at Sundance 2014.

To blur the line even more, the mistress (real or fiction) spontaneously goes blind as well, much to the dismay of Ingrid's husband. There's also the porn-loving neighbor of the mistress who seems to genuinely care for her but can't get the words out to say as much, before or after her sudden blindness. It turns out the neighbor is old college buddies with Ingrid's husband, adding to the confusion of the reality of anything we're seeing. The dilemma of the unreliable narrator is taken to extremes in Blind, and all at once, it's mystifying and exhilarating to watch multiple variations of a story unfold and not know exactly which, if any, are the real deal.

At times, the film is beautifully abstract and surreal; other moments, the proceedings are downright confounding. Either way, Blind is anchored by a sublime performance from Peterson and propelled by a desire to find the truth and escape the private hell of the mind. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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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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