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Column Fri Jun 19 2015

Inside Out, Dope, Heaven Knows What, The Wolfpack, The Yes Men are Revolting & The Face of an Angel

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Inside Out

A friend of mine said something interesting after watching the latest understated Pixar masterpiece, Inside Out: "This film could actually help people." And I don't think he meant that the emotion-based story might brighten people's day. I didn't give his prediction much thought until many hours later — and after hearing the many children in the audience talk to their parents about who their favorite emotion character was — but when I considered it, I realized that with just one screening, I could imagine kids opening up about and understanding their feelings, giving them a visual representation of what goes on in their heads when they get mad at a situation or person. I envision a 9-year-old noticing that Lewis Black's Anger character or Bill Hader's Fear is getting the best of them, and maybe allowing it to happen or making sure that Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) wins the day.

But the more I thought about it, I realized that the film might also inspire adults — particularly parents — to reconsider they way children's minds operate. As simple as the Pixar team (led by director and co-writer Peter Docter, who also helmed Up and Monsters Inc.) make the processes of the brain appear, there's also a great complexity and occasional darkness at play. Examine the brilliant trip that Joy and Sadness (Phyllis Smith of "The Office") take into 11-year-old Riley's mental room containing Abstract Thought. I can't think of a single moment in any Pixar movie that has approached getting that obtuse. Or take a look at Riley's closely guarded prison of the Subconscious, where are of her deepest fears are housed.

Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) is in a particularly vulnerable state when we meet her, resulting from her parents (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Lane) moving from her beloved Minnesota to the mean streets of San Francisco. Okay, they aren't that mean, but the culture shock is enough to send the normally happy and optimistic girl into an emotional tailspin. The world of her mind is an incredible concept — part funhouse, part Mission Control — with Riley's five core emotions (the fifth being Mindy Kaling's Disgust) standing watch and making decisions about how Riley will process this new world around her. With Joy firmly in control, Riley is able to maintain a fairly upbeat view of the move, despite missing her best friend and hockey team back in Minnesota.

Each time Riley experiences a somewhat significant event in her life, a memory is created (they look like colored bowling balls) and they roll through an elaborate network to her long-term or short-term storage. Each memory is assigned to one of the bigger-picture "lands" in Riley's mind, ones that represent such things as family, friendship, hockey and even just being a goofball. And then there are the Core Memories, which are the ones that will last forever; they are stored close to the command center and can be tapped into at crucial times in Riley's life — to recall the person she is and hopefully fortify her in some meaningful way.

Poehler's Joy isn't much of a far cry from Leslie Knope, her eternally chipper, always on message "Parks & Recreation" character, who treads the annoyance line gracefully, sometimes losing her balance. And while it makes sense that she would always want Riley to be happy, her earnestness to make sure that none of the other emotions steer her in an unhappy direction seems off, which is exactly what you're supposed to feel. As adults, we know that important memories that help us grow aren't all happy ones, but Joy isn't there yet. And it's no accident that, for reasons she can't even explain, Sadness is drawn to Riley's happy memories (which she can taint if she touches them for too long), which makes Joy crazy, leading to the pair of them getting accidentally sucked into the network and sent across the brain to memory storage, making Riley suddenly feel very empty and maudlin inside.

Most of Inside Out concerns Sadness and Joy attempting to get back to HQ to set things right, and in the process we enter all sorts of interesting worlds and cross paths with characters like Bing Bong (a cross-bred animal creature voiced by Richard Kind), Riley's one-time imaginary friend who just hangs out and entertains himself with good memories of Riley and him. Bing Bong seems like a silly, cartoonish character initially, but the significance he plays in this film is crucial and beyond moving. I also loved the brief appearance of Paula Poundstone and Bobby Moynihan as the Forgetters, a brand of janitor that goes into Riley's memories and vacuums out what they don't think she'll need anymore, dumping them into the cold, foreboding Memory Dump. (She doesn't need to remember these phone numbers; she's got them in her phone!") And I want an entire film made just about the little production company that creates Riley's dreams.

Docter (and co-screenwriters Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley) aren't afraid to let things to get serious when the need to. Riley is so broken up about leaving Minnesota that she contemplates running away from home. With only Fear, Anger and Disgust running the show, she's not making the wisest decisions. It may not be until close to the end of Inside Out that you understand what it truly is: a coming-of-age story. It may seem tragic that Riley's various Lands are falling apart the more she seems disillusioned by them (a botched hockey tryout in San Francisco causes Hockey Land to crumble into the Memory Dump, with the rest of the lands to follow). But it's not just Riley who grows up during the course of the film; Joy had to understand that her job is changing as Riley is getting older.

One of the things I love most about Inside Out is that all five emotions are working toward the same goal. When I went into the film the first time, I assumed the emotions would be constantly battling for control; in fact, they all want a healthy happy Riley. We begin to realize that Fear is actually keeping her from getting hurt; Disgust not only keeps her from eating terrible food, but she keeps her from wearing a terrible outfit on her first day at a new school; and Anger is there to let off necessary steam, and probably helps her play hockey a little better. Sadness might have the most important job of all as Riley matures, especially she and Joy work together.

Inside Out isn't just one of the best Pixar films of the last couple of years; it's one of the studio's finest efforts in its history, sitting on the same shelf as Wall-E, Up and the best of the Toy Story films. The film might be slightly more appealing to adults, but I can't imagine a youngster not eating up the inventive landscapes of the mind, even if they can't quite grasp what Abstract Thought is, or understand where the Train of Thought is taking us, or get why crates of Facts and Opinions getting mixed up is so damn funny. Docter and his team fill every corner of the frame with gags and bits of brilliance that demand you check out the film two or three times at least. It's that joyous and worthy of celebration.

As an added bonus, as with all Pixar films, Inside Out is preceded by a short film. This time around it's a romantic musical called Lava, and it's very strange, quite charming, and full of geography... and that's all you need to know about it. The day you spend in the movies with these two works is going to be one of the best days of your year.

To read my exclusive interview with Inside Out director/co-writer Pete Docter and producer Jonas Rivera, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Dope

One of the fan and critical favorites at this year's Sundance Film Festival was the new film from writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, whose past films have focused on upper-class black characters in such works as The Wood, Brown Sugar and Our Family Wedding. But with Dope, he's taking a different approach by diving headfirst into the drug- and gang-infested area know as The Bottoms, said to be the toughest neighborhood in Inglewood, California. But rather than focus on those aspects of black culture, he makes a small window in the life of young black nerd Malcolm (Shameik Moore), a kid obsessed with '90s hip-hop culture as reflected in music, clothes, television and movies. He's also in a pop-punk band called Awreeoh (pronounced Oreo) with his two best friends Jib (Tony Revolori, the bellhop from The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), their lesbian pal who often gets mistaken for a boy.

Malcolm and his friends are frequently picked on by the likes of school bully Bug (Short Term 12's Keith Stanfield) or local drug dealer Dom (rapper A$ap Rocky), who enlists Malcolm to deliver messages to a girl the dealer likes named Nakia (Zoë Kravitz, who has never looked more like her mother, Lisa Bonet). But it's clear Malcolm has eyes for Nakia as well, even if it means he's putting his life in danger. At a birthday party of Dom's that he invites Malcolm to, the cops raid the event and Dom manages to slip several packages of uncut MDMA (or Molly) into Malcolm's backpack so the cops won't find it, leaving him in a real quandary. Malcolm is also intent on getting into Harvard, and he has the grades to do it — although as his career counsellor reminds him, straight A's in his school don't mean shit. He has an alumni interview set in a few days, and instead of focusing on that, he's out trying to figure out how to dispose of these drugs.

Dope is about 50 percent plot and 50 percent execution and audio-visual flair. The soundtrack is a glorious mix of '90s rap music and Awreeoh's catchy rock numbers (all original songs by Pharrell Williams, an executive producer on the work, whose music for this film reminded me of outtakes from his N.E.R.D. days). But more than the overt touches, the movie has a raw, defiant energy that makes an honest discussion about race both funny and poignant. And the conversations aren't just about the differences between white and black; there are several honest exchanges about what it means to be black and several outright critical monologues about black culture looking down on anyone attempting to escape from their street-level roots.

There are also silly but revealing conversations about white people using the N-word as a term of affection for their black or white friends, and a critical look at the ways that young black people sometimes use the drug life as a means to get money to follow their dreams of escape. Very few of these topics are ones that make the characters (or audience) feel comfortable, but the discussions feel vital and important, even when they're played for laughs.

Shameik Moore is a weird and worthy force in Dope, with his flat-top haircut and perfect jaw line, he's a nerd on the outside but is slowly realizing that standing out in a crowd attracts the attention of ladies as well as bullies. And his scenes with Kravitz are loaded with chemistry and sex appeal. He feels trapped in a neighborhood that will never appreciate him, while knowing that even if he gets into Harvard, he likely won't be understood their either.

Eventually Malcolm realizes that the only way to rid himself of the drugs is to sell them himself, so he sets up an elaborate selling system involving the internet, Bitcoin, and stoned white hacker Will Sherwood (Blake Anderson), who is capable enough to pull this off but reckless enough to possibly screw something up. It's the perfect combination. Each chapter of their journey from innocent but knowledgeable kids to crafty drug dealers is like a new chapter in their descent, until a crucial moment arrives when Malcolm is forced to hold a gun, probably for the first time in his life. A social commentary posing as a teen comedy, Dope is solid, confident filmmaking from Famuyiwa, anchored by a host of solid young actors, all of whom will hopefully go on to produce even more hard-to-categorize works like this one.

Heaven Knows What

The core feeling coursing through your body while watching this devastating story of a young female heroin addict is discomfort. And the more you learn about the young woman at the center of the story, the more discomfort you're likely to experience. The first-time actress' name is Arielle Holmes, giving a performance that feels like she's doing a tightrope walk on a knife's edge the entire time. Perhaps the most difficult thing to absorb about Heaven Knows What is that the film is based on Holmes' memoir Mad Love in New York City, in which she chronicles her harrowing, destructive time as a junkie named Harley in love with another junkie, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who tests her love by asking her to slit her own wrists (which she does). And that's just the beginning of the film.

Ilya disappears from Landry's life for a while after that, but he's never really far from her thoughts. Directors Josh and Benny Safdic (Daddy Longlegs) fully embrace not just Landry's free-floating life and never-ending search for drugs, but they immerse us in the world around her, including Mike (played by street performer Buddy Duress), who clearly has something of a thing for Harley, and she allows him to indulge his feelings for her to a degree because he also has access to heroin that she takes advantage of. But we also meet a succession of people who just want to help in small ways, like an older woman who give these young people a place to sleep for the night, just so no one messes with them or their meager possessions when they're out cold.

The Safdic brotherss want the lines between reality and fiction to be blurred to the point of being indistinguishable. There are moments where I'm convinced the actors or others just on the street had no idea they were being filmed. And the locations and events Landry is forced to endure are almost more than the mind can contemplate. Landry Jones has always been the kind of actor who throws himself into his work (you might know him as Banshee from X-Men: First Class), but he's never sunk this deep onscreen before, to the point where I became concerned about his mental and physical well-being.

Heaven Knows What is an experience you will not soon forget, no matter how much you'd like to. I don't mean to make it sound like an endurance test, but for some of you, it might be. If you can handle the subject matter and the utterly authentic reenactments, you'll come out the other side impressed and shaken to your core. The film is about overcoming all types of addictions, and there are stray, fleeting moments of hope by the end of the film that may make the pain seem worth it. A lot of films and actors get labeled as fearless; the people that made this work were afraid, but somehow managed to make it through. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Wolfpack

We're halfway through the year, and I've found an early candidate for the strangest documentary of 2015... and that's one week after seeing The Nightmare. Winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize-Documentary, The Wolfpack sounds more ominous than it is, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have moments of true, buried trauma. This is the story of the Angulo family — a controlling father, a docile mother, six sons and one daughter, all living in a small apartment in Manhattan's Lower East Side. The apartment might not actually be that small, but with that many people in it, claustrophobia sets in early in the running time. Discovered by first-time feature filmmaker Crystal Moselle, the entire family (save the father) almost never left the confines of the apartment for years. The six brothers — all of whom look remarkably alike, complete with long dark hair — have only one real outlet to the world outside, and that's their massive film library, featuring a diverse selection that seems to favor popular action and horror films as well as the classics.

The boys not only watch the films; they write down the dialogue and stage directions and make their own crude but impressively inventive re-creations of Batman Begins, most of Tarantino's movies, and an array of horror offerings, to name a few. They also have a tendency to mix and match plot lines and characters for special occasions. They have a sometimes-unnerving positive attitude and are clearly aware (by the time Moselle meets them) that the way they grew up was quite unusual, being kept indoors nearly every day of their lives because their father was afraid that the world outside would somehow harm and corrupt them.

It's clear early on that the director has captured the family in a period of transition. The boys are going out more (often in nice suits and trench coats, which call even more attention to them walking around together), and they are feeling particularly defiant when it comes to their father, who is often drunk and depressed that he is losing his grip on the family. Although she doesn't acknowledge it, it seems clear that Moselle's presence in the household and her ease at coming and going is also influencing the boys' attitudes about venturing into the great unknown of New York City. Their first venture out to see a movie in a theater (David O. Russell's The Fighter, if you must know) feels like as good an excuse as any to have a parade down the city streets. It made me wish I got that excited about going to the movies. With each new outing (some might see them as mini-escapes), you can sense a shift in the dynamic of the household, and their father becomes less and less of a threat, although his words of paranoia still ring loud in some of the boys' ears.

In a world when documentary directors strive to be an unnoticed fly on the wall, Moselle is one of those rare filmmakers who doesn't seem to care or mind if she's having an impact on her subjects. It's clear that she had to gain their trust and friendship even to be allowed into the household. Although we aren't shown an overt interference on her part, the aftereffects are fairly visible, and with no degradation to the quality of the final product. Even in the weeks since I've seen it, The Wolfpack is an endless source of fascination to me, leaving me with question about how this father was able to get away with raising his children in such a way. But the lingering questions didn't really bother me because there are so many wonderful observances by Moselle. And listening to the boys talk about movies like true film geeks but from a slightly skewed vantage point made the work all the more captivating. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Yes Men are Revolting

I say with no shame or fear of repercussion that I love the Yes Men — a pair of New York-based activists (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) who play pranks on corporations, the media and the public to draw attention to important world issues, such as globalization, climate change, and general corporate greed. They work year round, pretending to be representatives from various badly behaving companies, and making announcements on behalf of said companies that are eventually revealed to be hoaxes, sparking a string of interviews with them about why they were driven to these lengths to get their message out there. And every few years, they put out very funny and informative documentaries about their work, including 2003's The Yes Men and 2009's The Yes Men Fix The World. But their latest, The Yes Men are Revolting is something a bit different and more revealing about the men behind the thrift-store suits and false business cards, stationary and websites.

The film begins strong, with a shifty little fake press conference in Washington D.C.'s Press Club posing as members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the nation's largest lobbying group, representing oil and coal companies, among others), during which the Yes Men pretend the group is changing a position on climate change and supporting a Carbon Tax for its clients. The news made all the major televised news organizations, but is quickly debunked when one of the group's top representatives shows up demanding to know who this impostor is. It's hilarious, tense and classic Yes Men.

But this is the first Yes Men movie that has gone somewhat deeper into both their personal lives (Mike is married with two kids; Andy is gay and in his first committed relationship) and the internal conflicts that come from said partners, who don't always understand just how much time and energy the Yes Men devote to their work. There comes a point when the men become frustrated with each other's demands for time, resources and organizing abilities. Activism is not a passive devotion, and while I'm sure the Yes Men know this well, it's interesting to see examples of it in one of their films. When Mike moves to Scotland (where his wife is from), leaving Andy in New York to arrange mischief alone, there's a sense that the end is near. (A dud of a prank leveled against Shell Oil is especially painful to watch unfold and then unravel.)

But relief comes in the unlikeliest of events: the Occupy Wall Street movement, which reminds Andy who and what the Yes Men are fighting for, and it nudges him to clear the air with Mike and get back to the work at hand. Considering the pair have been doing this work for around 20 years, it's actually kind of remarkable that they've lasted this long. There's no true measure about how effective they've been, but there are certainly examples of corporations or government agencies that have changed their policies shortly after being stung by the Yes Men.

Co-directed by the Yes Men and frequent collaborator Laura Nix (The Light in Her Eyes), the film's final stunt, carried out at a conference devoted to Homeland Security, attended by military contractors and members of the defense community, gives us hope for the reinvigorated Yes Men. Instead of being crude and silly, they attempt something meant to bring the room together in a way these people never have been in a setting like this. It's inspiring, entertaining and hopeful (and it even results in many attendees approaching them with business cards asking for more information), and I'm guessing the Yes Men were extremely happy with the outcome. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

The Face of an Angel

British director Michael Winterbottom (Jude, A Mighty Heart, The Claim, The Look of Love) has made a significant portion of his career about peeking behind the forces that make art, as well as showing that sometimes even he's not sure where reality begins and creation begins, assuming there is a distinct line. Often he blurs the line in a comedic fashion, in films like 24 Hour Party People, Tristram Shandy and the one-two punch of The Trip and The Trip to Italy. But with his latest, The Face of an Angel, he has taken Barbie Latza Nadeau's book (adapted by Paul Viragh) and turned it into the story of a director struggling to turn tabloid fodder into high art.

Clearly based on the murder trial of Amanda Knox — the young American woman accused of the 2007 killing of another woman with whom she shared an apartment in Italy — The Face of an Angel focuses on Thomas Lang (the great German actor Daniel Brühl), a film director who has struggled to find his next project since his marriage ended, leaving him aimless and missing his young daughter very much. He is in the eerily lovely Tuscan city of Siena, researching the events surrounding the murder of American Elizabeth Pryce (Sai Bennett), possibly by roommate Jessica Fuller (Genevieve Gaunt). He throws himself into the case — the facts, the rumors, the coverage and the deceptions that have been created largely in the name of giving the world media something to write about. Journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) is his useful guide through the muck of the trial and its many seedy characters, and the two become quite close, even as she attempts to maintain a professional distance.

It doesn't take long for Lang to start re-imagining the murder and subsequent trial as a metaphor best captured by Dante's Inferno, but it's clear to us that Lang is capturing himself in the role as the man going deeper into the hell of Siena in search of something close to the truth. Since Simone can only take him so far down this dangerous path (which Lang enhances with a steady intake of cocaine), he also relies on British university student and part-time waitress Melanie (Cara Belevingne) to get him the rest of the way down. Before long, he's having visions and nightmares that he can't distinguish from the real world, none of which aids him in getting his script written or convincing the film's producers that he's on the right path to envisioning the direction he wants to take with his movie.

Brühl has quickly grown to become one of the finest and most reliable actors working today, from his start in such works as Good Bye Lenin! to strong supporting roles in The Bourne Ultimatum, Inglourious Basterds, All Together, The Fifth Estate, A Most Wanted Man and Woman In Gold. His most memorable work to date was opposite Chris Hemsworth in Rush, and he's set to play key villain Baron Zemo in Captain America: Civil War. However, he's rarely been so tortured as he is in The Face of an Angel, putting himself in risky, harmful situations just to remember that his life still has meaning, especially in the face of losing his family. This hellish landscape is just as much for him to make it through as it is the woman on trial, whom the public and press have already condemned.

There's a strange but useful coda in the movie that take Lang and Melanie on a quick trip to a quiet, serene part of the country where he can finish writing his script, one that he has wisely taken from docudrama to dramatic fiction (much like the film we're watching). It doesn't give anything away to say that the ending sequence is a nice reminder that sometimes people can pull themselves out of personal hells with the help of friends, and the film feels as much like an epic journey through the Inferno for director Winterbottom as it does for his lead character. The Face of an Angel is a strange and gloomy film that sometimes gets lost in its own artifice, but it's always fascinating, and the actors are all doing some of their best work. It's an exhilarating watch however you react to individual elements of the piece, and well worth seeking out. The film opens today in Chicago for 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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