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Column Fri Jun 12 2015

Jurassic World, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Madame Bovary, Live from New York!, Testament of Youth, The Farewell Party & Jauja

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Jurassic World

There's no getting around the fact that Jurassic Park changed lives — the lives of those involved with the making of the film, and more importantly, the lives of millions who watched it back in 1993 or in all the years since. And it's very clear from watching the third sequel, Jurassic World, that the original film also had a major impact on co-writer Derek Connolly and director/co-writer Colin Trevorrow (both of whom spruced up a screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver). In many ways, Jurassic World plays like the ultimate fan film sprung from conversations in which every sentence began, "What would happen if...?"

For example, "What would happen if the dinosaur-driven theme park on Isla Nublar re-opened a dozen year after the first time all hell broke loose (Jurassic World seems to exist in a world where the first and second sequels don't exist or aren't acknowledged)." "What would happen if people got so used to seeing real-life dinosaurs back on the earth they park scientists had to invent more dangerous species to keep attendance numbers up?" "What would happen if the military suddenly took an interest in using dinosaurs as weapons of war and counter-terrorism?" People come up with wacky shit in this game, don't they?

For a great deal of its running time, Jurassic World is actually two movies. One — the far less interesting one — involves a pair of brothers, the older one Zach (Nick Robinson from The Kings of Summer) and younger Gray (Ty Simpkins from the first two Insidious movies and Iron Man 3), both of whom are being shipped off to Jurassic World while mom and dad stay behind to work out their marriage and/or divorce. I understand that these films feel they have to include children as part of their main story, but I hated these characters for being little more than plot devices and things that need saving.

The far more interesting other part of the film concerns the folks that run the park, at every level. At the top are people like Mr. Masrani (Life of Pi's Irrfan Khan), who seems to be filling in for a much-missed John Hammond as the wise elder who likes the money he's making but is sensitive to the greater good as well. He also is learning to fly helicopters, and I'll be damned if that doesn't come into play late in the film. In charge of the park's day-to-day operations is Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), the over-scheduling, anal-retentive lady boss who doesn't have time for a man but still looks good in heels and a tight-ish skirt. She's also the visiting boys' aunt, so she's saddled with the task of playing mother to them on top of all of the other indignities.

Anyone claiming that sexism isn't alive and well in this film is fooling themselves; it actually made me uncomfortable at times watching how Claire is treated and regarded in this film. And maybe we're supposed to notice that the same way she does, and that this treatment is meant to be some great motivator for her to try harder, but even that attitude is antiquated. Howard finds ways to rise above the harpy she's been saddled with playing, but Laura Dern's character got treated with far more respect in the first film 22 years ago.

We also meet a series of park workers who are more hands on in dealing with the hundreds of safely stored dinosaurs, including Owen (Chris Pratt), who is more of a dino whisperer and trainer than anything else. In an early scene, it's clear that he's found ways of training the previously feared raptors. Maybe trained isn't the right word, but there's enough of a mutual respect between the raptors and Owen that they don't eat him. His right-hand man is Barry (Omar Sy, last seen as Bishop in X-Men: Days of Future Past), and the two are being tempted by the clearly evil Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio), an independent military contractor who is trying to sell the idea of turning these stealthy raptors into weapons of war. Owen is fairly new to the park, so he's shocked and terrified when he finds out that park scientist, led by the original film's Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong), have developed a new strain of dinosaur — named Imperious Rex — who is bigger, smarter, and more dangerous than anything else on the island. Because it is made up of classified strains of other animals, Owen and his team don't exactly know the extend of the danger when the I-Rex escapes his confines and starts heading for the park and its 22,000 visitors with killing on the brain.

And that's pretty much Jurassic World, a series of scenes in which people are either chasing the I-Rex or running away from it. With some fun, clever references to the first film as well as exponentially raising the stakes (and potential body count) and the sheer volume of dinosaurs on display, the movie is certainly a great deal of fun and never dull. The biggest problems with the film are the characters, who feel so cut from the action-movie cloth that you could wear them as a suit and still have material left over. One of the biggest missteps is casting Pratt — not that he's terrible in the film, but his greatest gifts as a charming, personality-driven actor are completely missing from his character. Muscles? Check. Evenly distributed tan? Check. But Owen is lifted out of the age-old action-hero mold without any modifications, updates or distinguishing features. Pratt puts on a serious face, rolls up his sleeves so you can see his meaty forearms, and starts punching dinosaurs. Presumably Pratt was hired to add a little flavor and life to this character, but it's largely missing in this performance.

The temptation with this misstep is to blame Trevorrow and Connolly, but the pair made a wonderful film a couple years ago called Safety Not Guaranteed, which is chock full of personality and actors who were clearly given permission to find their own ways to shine, including Jake Johnson, who just happens to appear in Jurassic World as Lowery, a control room employee who is funny, resourceful and more than defiant when Hoskins comes raging into his place of work and tries to take over. Johnson isn't in the film that much, but when he's on screen, the audience can at least be engaged with someone in this film.

Look, I realize that quite often standards for entertainment and character development drop during the warmer months. And yes, the dinosaurs are loud and scary and there are more of them this time around, which I'm all in favor of. I was particularly impressed with the park itself — the layout, the merchandising details, the many attractions and educational opportunities available to attendees; it felt like a 100 percent real place. Hell, I even laughed out loud when it was revealed that one of the rides featured a short instructional video hosted by Jimmy Fallon. But the way an action film engages me completely is by making me care about the characters, even just a little bit, just enough to give a shit whether they live or die. And except for Johnson's character, I don't think I felt that about anyone in Jurassic World.

I certainly don't mean to make it sound like viewing Jurassic World had me in agony the entire time; it didn't. I spent most of my time watching it in a free-floating state of amusement, without being especially engaged. It moves at a perfectly acceptable action pace, and the special effects and other visuals are quite impressive. But there's a heart that is simply missing; there's no real reason to care about what happens in this film, and that's a shame because Trevorrow knows how to make that happen, so I'm not sure he's the one to blame. But I do believe that if this film make the ton of money it's supposed to, he may get another chance to make the movie of his choice the way he wants to down the line. He'll be an interesting figure to watch, to be sure.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

One of the prevailing conversations at the Sundance Film Festival this year was that there was no single hugely anticipated film, as there was last year with titles like Boyhood or Life Itself. This being my first year attending, I was actually excited by this prospect because that meant that filmgoers and critics alike had to take a few chances and be ready to make a discovery or two. And while I certainly walked away with four or five titles that I'm extremely excited for you to see in the coming year (hopefully), perhaps the most unexpected triumphs of the festival is a film with one of the worst titles — Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which ended up deservedly winning the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and the Audience Award (U.S. Dramatic), a feat that occurs very rarely at Sundance but did manage to happen last year with a little film called Whiplash.

And while I never comment on such things, I was excited to watch this work and see the commercial appeal (apparently so did Fox Searchlight, which picked it up for distribution on the day it premiered). I only mention this because it actually thrills me at the prospect of a film like this becoming a legitimate hit. It's small, quirky, hilarious at times, and deals with genuine emotions in a way so rarely seen, certainly in films about teenagers. Working from a fully charged screenplay by Jesse Andrews (based on his novel), director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (who cut his teeth on multiple episodes of "Glee," "American Horror Story" and one other feature, the recent remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown) comes up with something of a new visual language for high school-set movies, complete with inventive graphics, animation and a series of very funny amateur remakes of art-house classics.

But that's just window dressing for a uniquely compelling story about Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a social outcast who makes these strange little movies with his sole friend Earl (Ronald Cyler II), whom he refers to as his co-worker. Greg is forced by his mother (Connie Britton, interestingly married to a mellowed-out Nick Offerman) to befriend fellow student Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. The relationship doesn't exactly take off like a rocket, but after some time, the pair start to find their common ground and settle into a tentative, yet comfortable friendship. They become so close, in fact, that Greg is determined to make a special film just for her before she gets much sicker and presumably dies.

Far from a meet-cute story, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl takes the time to watch both of its leads slowly remove themselves from their comfort zones, complete with witty comebacks and a healthy cynicism, and settle into substantial exchanges with another human being that are actually going to have a lasting impact of both. This isn't a teenage love story, but it absolutely is a tale of two people who find someone else to love them in a protective and abundantly kind way. And of course, the second we start to find ourselves wanting to hang with these two forever, Rachel's illness takes a turn for the worse, and the film enters a realm that no one on either side of the screen is prepared for (even though it's right there in the title, folks).

Peppered with supporting performances from an all-around great cast — including Jon Bernthal as a teacher who allows Greg and Earl to watch great movies in his office; Molly Shannon as Olivia's inappropriately flirty mother; and, most shockingly, a grown-up Bobb'e J. Thompson (Role Models) as Earl's trash-talking older brother — Me and Earl and the Dying Girl takes familiar elements from teen comedies and find inventive ways of presenting them and making them feel fresh and vibrant. Ultimately, however, it's the film's emotional components that are going to simultaneously lift your soul and squeeze on your heart just a little too hard. Led by the tremendous trio of Mann, Cooke and Cyler, this is a film that will linger in your mind and tear ducts long after you see it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interviews with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and stars Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke and Ronald Cyler II.

Results

It was strange sitting down to watch Results, the new film by Austin-based writer-director Andrew Bujalski, and actually coming to the startling realization that he was making something, dare I say, accessible. Don't get me wrong, I happen to think his last offering, Computer Chess, was one of the great films of 2013; in fact, to varying degrees, I've really loved the grounded-in-reality approach of all of his films, and the way he sifts through the ordinary to find the extraordinary buried beneath. But by using professional actors (as opposed to largely first-timers in his other works) and without compromising his commitment to telling stories about fully realized human beings, Bujalski has dared to set himself up as a mainstream filmmaker, and dammit, it suits him.

The driving heart of Results belongs to Kevin Corrigan as Danny, a rich, newly divorced, emotionally empty man who decides to improve his life in some way, with the hopes of it being the first of many steps toward regaining his happiness. He contacts personal trainer Kat (Cobie Smulders), whose hair-trigger temper is matched only by her complete inability to allow anyone close to her. Kat works for Trevor (Guy Pearce), the head of Power 4 Life gym, and when Danny walks in to request a workout regimen, it's clear that Kat is being punished by being given this assignment.

Having no idea how to deal with the amount of inherited money he now possesses, Danny goes overboard purchasing gym equipment to impress Kat, whom he's clearly taken an interest in after about five minutes with her. Something about her abrasive personality gets through to him. It's also fairly clear that Trevor has a bit of a thing for Kat, but because people all fall in love at different speeds, he has resigned himself to the fact that perhaps they were never meant to be. This is what separates a Bujalski-style rom-com from the rest of the pack; he doesn't force people together for the sake of wrapping things up in nice bow. He gets the great pleasure (as do we) in watching these characters engage in uncomfortably flirty conversations, which happen to resemble his version of friendly arguments. It's a fine line that Bujalski loves dancing upon.

Everyone in Results is damaged goods, and most of them are good with that until something better comes along, which makes Danny unusual in this mix. He's actually trying to make himself better. And while his beer belly isn't going away anytime soon, perhaps his soul is in a better place by the end of the film. Strong supporting performances from the likes of Giovanni Ribisi, Anthony Michael Hall, Constance Zimmer and Brooklyn Decker elevate the film's comedic touches, but it's the Corrigan-Smulders-Pearce relationship triangle that registers as a true piece of screen magic. Results is a film in which the characters ultimately are invested as much in improving themselves as they are finding that Mr. or Ms. Right, but they acknowledge that both are important to them. I've seen the film a couple times now, and it gets better with each viewing. Give this bit of quirk your time and attention. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

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

Madame Bovary

I've always found Flaubert's Madame Bovary an inherently un-cinematic story, but that hasn't stopped people from attempting the occasional adaptation. The latest (and the first directed by a women — Cold Souls helmer Sophie Barthes) stars Mia Wasikowska (Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland) as Emma Bovary, a woman who marries a country doctor (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) and is essentially miserable for doing so. She pushes him to strive for something more than being a simple smalltown physician, but he's content in his position, which does not sit well with Emma, whose tastes in expensive furniture, clothes and other accessories far outpace her husband's income.

Her other passion is more exciting men, and sadly compared to her husband, that's just about anyone that falls in her eyesight. But she takes particular interest in young Leon Dupuis (Ezra Miller from The Perks of Being a Wallflower) for his unbridled passion, as well as The Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green) for his money, which she assumes he'll lavish on her; naturally he does not. Her dalliances aren't exactly kept a secret, so while her mid-1800s version of a credit score plummets, so does her reputation in the community.

Not surprisingly, Wasikowska adds some genuine depth for Emma's plight; the difficulty with the film is one that has always been a part of this story. Madame Bovary is not an easy character to like or even sympathize with. She's easily taken advantage of by the likes of Monsieur Lheureux (Rhys Ifans), who swoops in like a bird of prey on Emma's first down in town and immediately starts tempting her with fine silks and pricey candlesticks. He's a silver-tongued devil who turns on Emma as soon as her bills become enormous. Paul Giamatti is on hand as the doctor's beneficiary and supporter Monsieur Homais, who pushes his charge to perform a surgery on a club-footed boy that he simply is unqualified to perform. Needless to say, the results are disastrous. Perhaps the strangest casting choice is Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith on "Downtown Abbey") as the Bovary's listless servant Henriette; I didn't recognize her in plain clothes, and it took me half the film before I realized who she was and why I couldn't place the face.

Madame Bovary is elegantly shot, with just enough murky undertones to be able to predict that Emma's future in this town is cloudy at best. But there is very little that stands out as exceptional in this latest version. I'll admit, I think I'll always prefer the 1991 version of this story, starring Isabelle Huppert and directed by Claude Chabrol. Director Barthes' choice to condense the story from years to a few months doesn't do much to speed things along, but the film doesn't drag either. It just exists on the screen the same way the original story sits on the page. In a way, I'm fairly certain the filmmaker herself doesn't take much pity on the overspending, restless Emma Bovary either. She simply wishes to present her plight and allow us to silently pass judgement on her. It's a cold way to make a film, but I appreciated Barthes allowing the audience to make up its own mind about the worth of a character rather than having it forced upon us. Fans of the novel will probably allow curiosity to get the best of them — especially with a acting powerhouse like Wasikowska doing such splendid work. There are worse ways to spend two hours, I suppose. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Live from New York!

When you've only got about 80 minutes to capture the essence and importance of one of American most culturally significant pop culture destinations, you really don't have a choice but to boil it down to its essence rather than attempt to examine every detail that made this landmark work and not work. Cinematographer-turned-director Bao Nguyen does a credible job working in broad strokes for his "Saturday Night Live" doc Live from New York!, a film not produced by NBC nor the show's founder and long-time producer Lorne Michaels. All of the writers, performers and Michaels himself are simply willing participants going through stories, as they probably have a great deal recently as the series celebrated its 40th year on the air.

No one season, cast, host or performer is treated with any particular reverence. Instead the film focuses a bit on the creation of the show, the ideas behind its creation, and how those ideas have evolved from '70s-era, post-Watergate cynicism to sharp political satire to more character-driven comedy to digital shorts (oh, hello Andy Sandberg). Wisely, the film is no puff piece either, addressing the "boys club" mentality of the writers' room (Julia Louis-Dreyfus puts that topic into some much-needed perspective) as well as the show's casting issues when it came to performers of color.

But really, you come to a film like this hoping to gain some sense of perspective from those who were a part of it. There are great interviews with alumni like Chris Rock, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyer, as well as frequent hosts such as Alec Baldwin, John Goodman and Candice Bergen. I particularly enjoyed hearing from original cast members Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain and Garrett Morris, each of whom finds unique ways of blowing the lid off the idea that the cast from seasons 1-5 was a fine-tuned, cohesive unit always cranking out classic bits.

There's very little in Live from New York! about the fascinating week-to-week production process, which is beautifully documented in the 2010 James Franco-directed film Saturday Night (if you can find a copy). And any discussion of drugs or other forms of hard living that claimed the lives of a few cast members over the years is nowhere to be found. With a film that is attempting to make a case that "Saturday Night Live" is a cultural time capsule for America, perhaps my biggest gripe is that there isn't more about the incredible range of music the show has featured over the years. If you still believe "SNL" has a place in the zeitgeist of the United States, then this doc is a good, not great, example of why that still might be true. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

As a special treat, Live from New York! director Bao Nguyen will do a post-screening Q&A after the 7:30pm show on Saturday, June 13 at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Testament of Youth

Almost slipping through the cracks this week is the British film Testament of Youth, from first-time feature director James Kent, based on the widely read World War I memoir by Vera Brittain. It's not only a widely regarded testimony on the brutality of war seen from the perspective of a woman who lost many a loved one to the conflict but also was on the front lines in France as a field nurse, treating both British soldiers and German prisoners during some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

As the film opens, we see Vera (played with a great deal of heart and fire by Ex Machina's Alicia Vikander), who very much has the desire to continue her education at the university level, against her father's wishes. But when her brother Edward (Taron Egerton of Kingsmen) pushes their father (Dominic West) and mother (Emily Watson), they agree to let her attend. But right as she's preparing to go, the war breaks out and Edward and his friends, including one Vera is quite fond of, named Roland (Kit Harington of "Game of Thrones"), all enlist. Vera is tormented by all of these people that she is friends with being in such danger, and while she excels at school (with the help of an administrator played by the great Miranda Richardson), she feels compelled to help out in the war effort in same way. As a result, she volunteers at a charity hospital run by nuns in Britain and sees every manner of war injury, both physical and mental.

And that's pretty much the entire story — slowly but surely most of the people that mean something to her die, and her requesting to go into the thick of it almost seems like a defense mechanism to bury the pain in some of the most horrific work imaginable. I certainly don't mean to downplay just how powerful parts of this film are, but from what I've heard about the book, Testament of Youth is a fairly straight-forward telling of Vera Brittain's story, and in many ways, that's enough. Vikander is absolute perfection as the author, going from a girl of some privilege to one covered in blood and mud. At times, the film in unbearably sad and painful, and that's the way a war film should be. The most positive spin on the story is that Brittain took her experience and her desire to be a writer and turned it into a book that helped heal a nation, but it was a hard road to that point, and Testament of Youth chronicles almost too well. Don't let this one get lost. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Farewell Party

I'm not quite sure what to think of this film from Israel, but it has won a boatload of awards at various film festivals and from the Israeli Film Academy, so take that for what it's worth. The Farewell Party follows elderly inventor Yehezkel (Ze'ev Revach), who tinkers and creates various gadgets around the house to make life a little easier for himself and his wife, who is clearly in the early stages of severe memory loss. The couple lives in a Jerusalem retirement community, and another elderly friend of theirs has a husband who is dying in the hospital and wants very much to be put out of his misery. After much serious debate amongst their closest friends, Yehezkel agrees to build a suicide machine so that all the patient has to do is push a button when he or she is ready to go.

Although everyone is sworn to secrecy, naturally word gets out that Yehezkel has such a device and a small number of requests come in to use it from others with dying and suffering relatives, and when he tells them know, some threaten to expose him to the authorities. The film movies from comedic to drama with relative ease, but it never loses its sense of compassion for these people, especially Yehezkel, whose wife's condition continues to get worse, and we suspect that he may eventually be called upon to make the toughest call of all regarding his euthanasia machine.

Writers-directors Sharon Maymon and Tal Granit sometimes get a bit distracted from their main story with silly subplots (one that results in most of the elderly friends getting naked together in a greenhouse for a foolish reason) and unnecessary drama. But their approach to the material is fresh and not overly serious. Many of the patients, now having the ability to choose their moment and means of death, are able to plan their farewells accordingly and movingly. It's a tough balance that the filmmakers must strike, but most of the time, they get it just right. I'd be genuinely curious to know how older audience members respond to The Farewell Party. Would they see it as empowering or condescending or silly or fantasy? I couldn't even predict the answer, but it's certainly a film that is apt to inspire a great deal of conversation, as well as a few laughs and tears. Something for everyone, I guess. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Jauja

Jauja marks my first foray into the films of Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso, and it marks his first journey into period filmmaking, setting his bleak tale in 1882, along the shores of Patagonia. In this desolate landscape, one might be surprised to see Danish officer and engineer Capt. Gunnar Dinesen (Viggo Mortensen, who produced the film and scored it, along with speaking Spanish and Danish throughout), who has arrived with his 15-year-old daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjørk Malling Agger) to begin the surveying work to turn this place into something resembling civilization. He's traveling with a military escort, charged with eliminating the lands of their native inhabitants to make room for progress — a bloody campaign called the "Conquest of the Desert."

However, Dinesen is immediately suspicious of the men assigned to him, thinking (rightfully so in most cases) that they all have eyes for his daughter whose maturing hormones are being supercharged by being surrounded by all of these men for the first time. Then sure enough, in the middle of the night, Ingeborg and a young soldier flee into the night to be together, sending Dinesen into a rage. He abandons his duty and goes in pursuit of her across some of the most surreal landscapes you'll ever see on film, some of which look color-saturated to add an extra layer of eeriness to the proceedings.

The remainder of the Jauja is long stretches of Mortensen trekking deeper and deeper into this unknown land, occasionally finding clues that he's still on the right path, but really he's slowly losing his mind, going across surfaces in treadless boots that force him to walk cautiously with every step. He eventually ends up in a cave inside a giant tree where he meets an old woman (who may or may not be real) who sets him down a path toward total oblivion. We know he's a lost cause far before that, however. If you're the kind of moviegoer who insists on easy-to-follow plot and messages need to be projected in 50-foot letters for you to understand, you should likely stay clear of Jauja and its long, maudlin takes and long, dialogue-free stretches. This is a work about a man journeying inside his own mind, and Mortensen makes it absolutely fascinating stuff. He's as committed as you'll ever see an actor be and he'll pull you along with him, if you're open to it. The film opens today in Chicago Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, June 13 at 7:45pm; Sunday, June 14 at 3pm; Monday, June 15 at 8:15pm; and Tuesday, June 16 at 6pm.

 
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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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