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Column Fri Jul 10 2015

Minions, Self/less, The Gallows, Amy, Batkid Begins, A Murder in the Park, The Tribe, Jimmy's Hall, Sunset Edge & What We Did on Our Holiday

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Minions

The ideas behind a stand-alone Minions movie are solid. Behind every big bad in the world throughout time, there have been little yellow followers who are more than eager to help out, even though most of the time they end up hindering or even accidentally killing their boss, often doing more good than harm. They started out helping out a nasty T-Rex and moved their way through history from cavemen to vampires to Napoleon up to more recent examples, like the ones you might be familiar with in the two Despicable Me films. Most of Minions is set in the 1960s, when the Minions find out about a convention in Orlando for villains of all shapes and sizes, and what better place to find a new boss than Villain-Con?

The main attraction at the con is an appearance by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), the world's first female super-villain — although she doesn't really do anything all that terrible during the course of the film, not for lack of trying. She has a himbo husband named Herb (Jon Hamm), who adds very little to the proceedings. Scarlet is at the convention to find a new evil support team, and naturally the Minions step up to compete for her attention and affection. The problem is, once the film settles in on this particular storyline, it becomes clear that there isn't much to support a Minions movie at all, thanks to a paper-thin screenplay from Brian Lynch (who also wrote Hop and the upcoming The Secret Life of Pets).

What always fascinated me about Minions in general is how bizarre they are in every respect, and I tried to figure out what the differences were among them. Some have one eye, some have two. How do they multiply? Or do they even have to, since they never seem to die. And then there are those voices and that language. I'll give all credit to Despicable Me (the first and second) co-director Pierre Coffin, a French comedy specialist who voices pretty much all the Minions (he also co-directed Minions with Kyle Balda, who helmed The Lorax). I'd never really noticed the complexity of their language before, but it's a mash-up of French, Spanish, English and nonsense, but you always have a sense of what the little guys are talking about. Their immense popularity is astonishing and makes total sense.

In this particular story (as in the Despicable Me films) the Minions stand-out performers are Kevin, Stuart (who plays ukulele), and the squat Bob, whose eyes are two different colors, indicating some sort of "slowness," I'm guessing. The three of them leave their Minion brothers in the frozen Arctic in search of a new boss, which brings them to New York City and eventually on the road to Villain-Con (with the Nelson family, including parents voiced by Michael Keaton and Allison Janney, as the nicest villains you'd ever want to road trip with).

Scarlet's master plan is, for some reason, to steal the crown from the head of Britain's Queen Elizabeth (Jennifer Saunders), so that she can rule the UK (I'm pretty sure that's not how one becomes Queen of England, but let's go with it), and that's about as detailed as things get. With such low stakes, Minions is more an exercise in being adorable and quirky, which it is when the focus of the film is just the pill-shaped creatures. I liked the film a little less with each new character addition, because it took away from the goggled henchmen. Bullock doesn't really add anything to the proceedings, and almost more glaring is how unfunny and flat her voice work is. She sounds like she's reading from the page and attempting to put in her evilest voice, but none of it works. Seriously, Geoffrey Rush is the narrator of the story, and he gives a funnier performance than Bullock does. It's a classic case of casting a name over the actual ability to do voice work.

And for those who particularly love the interaction between the Minions and their Despicable Me boss Gru, if you wait long enough, you might get a glimpse of a young, pointy-nosed baddie in the mix somewhere. Minions is certainly harmless entertainment, but it seems unnecessarily cluttered by too much generic villain story. The idea of the Minions bouncing from boss to boss causing mischief as they go would have made for a far more enjoyable experience, but I'm guessing that won't stop at least your kids from enjoying this one as is.

Self/less

There's a key flaw in the latest sci-fi action thriller Self/less, from which many other problems with the film stem. The launching off point of the plot is that a very rich and very ill man named Damian (nicely underplayed by Ben Kingley) finds out that there is secret and exceedingly expensive technology available that can take a human mind and place it in a new and younger body, created in a lab. Naturally he pays for the service (from a company run by Matthew Goode's Dr. Albright), and before long his mind is in an artificial body that looks a lot like Ryan Reynolds.

Part of the process of this transplant (called "shedding") is that you have to abandon your previous life entirely, so Damian must never again see his grown daughter ("Downton Abbey's" Michelle Dockery) or his best friend Martin (Victor Garber). Before you shed, you sock away a bunch of money to live off of, and you're off down a path that could lead to immortality or at least a very extended life. Like any other transplant, you have to take a pill, once a day, to avoid rejection. But when Damian forgets to take his, he starts having visions of another life, a soldier's life — a soldier with a wife, Madeline (Natalie Martinez), and young daughter, Anna (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen).

I don't think I'm ruining anything to tell you that Damian soon discovers that the body his brain is now in is that of a soldier believed killed in Afghanistan, and he sets out to discover exactly who these people are in his vision and why he's seeing things. This naturally does not sit well with Dr. Albright, who has been pumping him full of meds to make sure these memories stay buried. And thus begins Damian's mad chase to get answers, and Albright's pursuit to make sure that doesn't happen. So what starts out as a vaguely promising, if familiar (hello there, John Frankenheimer's Seconds), science-fiction story becomes fairly standard-issue pursuit film whose outcome is fairly easy to predict.

I tend to like the oddball side of Reynolds. He's a funny guy with loads of charm, but the stranger the role, the more I tend to see what he's truly capable of as an actor. Check him out in the little-seen The Voices or the upcoming Mississippi Grind. I think there's a very good reason you should be excited about his comic book turn in Deadpool (set for early 2016). But Self/less doesn't really seem to be a challenge for him. He's going through the motions and emotions of this confused man, and when he has these visions and is torn about his identity, those are the best moments in the film, but there aren't nearly enough of them.

What's more troubling about Self/less is that it was directed by one of the true visionary filmmakers currently working, Tarsem Singh, whose eye-popping creations for The Cell and The Fall are some of my favorites; even his more recent efforts, like Mirror Mirror and Immortals maintain his intense sense of style and spectacle, even if they're basically dumb movies. But there is zero trace of Tarsem in this new movie; it could be anyone behind the camera. It's so patently flat and mainstream that it feels like a death in the family of great filmmakers. And this average sci-fi story, from screenwriters David and Àlex Pastor, needs something to set it apart from the rest. I had assumed Tarsem's cinematic eye would elevate the material; sadly, that isn't the case.

However, that isn't the fatal flaw of which I spoke at the top of this review. The problem lies in believability — not in the science, but in the lead character. It's firmly established that Damian has put business before all else, including his family. An attempt to reconcile with his daughter before his "death" goes horribly wrong, mostly because he tries to throw money at her to heal her age-old wounds. What I had trouble with was Damian caring that the body he was in belonged to a real person, rather than it being something that was manufactured in a lab. It might have disturbed him, but he was obsessed enough with keeping his mind alive to go through this process that I never bought that he would seek out the family he was seeing in his brain to possibly give them back the man they lost. I spent a great deal of Self/less thinking, "Yeah, but he wouldn't do that."

This has nothing to do with thinking that all rich people are selfish with their money and their feelings about others, but if you're going to have us believe someone would twist their entire world around to stay alive longer, don't then try to convince us that this same person would throw that all away over something like this. Yes, this is meant to be a story about redemption, but I think there might have been other ways to tackle that without going to these extremes. But I'll clue you into a little secret: even if that weren't an issue, the movie isn't particularly strong no matter how man genres you try to squeeze it into, and I left feeling more "less" than "self."

The Gallows

I love the idea behind The Gallows. Sure, it's another found-footage film (if you're going to say how much you hate found footage movies, move along — plenty of other films opening this week for you to investigate), but the story idea is a fun one, especially if you had any ties to your high school drama department. The movie opens with videotaped footage of a high school production of a play called The Gallows, during which a student named Charlie Grimille was accidentally hung under mysterious circumstances. He was actually the understudy for another student, who called in sick that day, and it's unclear how his stunt-noose suddenly became a real one.

Then the film jumps ahead 20 years, now being shot with digital cameras and cell phones, the drama department has decided to re-stage The Gallows as a tribute to the original production and lost player. Not only is that in good taste, but it seems safe, considering there are grumblings that the ghost of Charlie Grimille has haunted the theater ever since. Fairly soon, after first-time feature filmmakers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing establish the characters, their motivations for being in the production, and who likes who, the movies drifts into actual plot and the main players rise to the surface. There's our main camera operator Ryan (Ryan Shoos), who's an obnoxious twit jock and friends with Reese (Reese Mishler), a football player who wants to be in this play to get close to Pfeifer (Pfeifer Brown), the school's diva acting queen. And then there's the resident mean girl/cheerleader Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, as in Kathy Lee and Frank Gifford's daughter and Disney TV star).

If the characters descriptions haven't clued you in, let me spell it out. The deepest flaw in The Gallows is that it's tough not to hate everybody for different reasons even before the scary stuff starts to happen. There are some tremendous scares in the film, to be sure, but I felt absolutely no grief when a character was threatened or got picked off. This film spent about four years getting worked on, reshot, and fine tuned after getting picked up by producer Jason Blum (the Paranormal Activity, Insidious and Sinister franchises), and it's tough to imagine that at some point someone didn't say, "Can we make one of these students somewhat likable?" I know it sounds like fun, but it's actually a bad sign when you're rooting for the guy with the leather mask on his head and noose in his hands to murder everyone in the movie.

The film leaves enough questions unanswered and bread crumbs on the ground to pave the way for sequels, prequels and offshoots about the history of this play, Charlie's ghost and just how he ended up being the one to die 20 years ago. And weirdly enough, the mythology of the film is fantastic. Maybe with the next go-round on this storyline, the filmmakers can give us characters we'd actually like to see make it to the end, even if they don't. I'm a supporter of quality independent horror (which this is, even if it got picked up by Blumhouse and is being distributed by Warner Bros.), and I absolutely see potential in these filmmakers. Their use of found footage is solid, and I like the way the narrative sometimes doubles back a few minutes so we can see the same short timeframe from two different cameras, so that what begins as a noise behind a door in one shot becomes another (far more terrifying) shot from behind that door.

The Gallows is almost more frustrating and disappointing because there's a new-ish idea behind it (at least in the context of found footage works), but I suspect this won't be the last time we'll be hearing from these filmmakers or Charlie Grimille. On a sidenote, the film is inexplicably rated R, despite there being no nudity, excessively bad language or gore; seriously, I've seen and heard worse on FX or AMC cable shows. I guess it got that rating from just being terrifying, which it is at times, but still, the MPAA continues to baffle the world.

Amy

Director Asif Kapdia (Senna) did something very smart with his new documentary about singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse: he made the songs the centerpiece of the film; hell, they practically narrate the performer's fractured, broken life story. Certainly using music as the core element of a music documentary might seem like the obvious choice. But lest's face it, there a great number of ways into a film about Winehouse. She had issues with family, drugs, lovers, the press, and fame that most of us can't imagine, and she wasn't built to withstand the constant onslaught of attention.

The most fascinating parts of Amy involve walking us through Winehouse's life from her being a girl wanting to be a singer up to the release of her first album, Frank, for the simple reason that most of us (especially Americans) don't know much about those years. Using a great deal of previously unseen archival footage that her friends and family turned over to Kapdia and his team, the film paints in very precise strokes a fairly substantial portrait of a brash young woman with a true gift for interpreting songs and writing her heart. The more hurt she was feeling, the better and more wounded the song. Especially moving are the conversations with her two best friends since her teenage years, who clearly are still reeling from her death in 2011.

There are great moments early in the film that even have a pay-off near the end. She expresses her deep love of and inspiration from the music of Tony Bennett, and then not long before she died, she got a chance to record a touching duet with her. The video of the recording session reveals a nervous, shaking Winehouse in the presence of her idol, and it's absolutely charming. While the film doesn't play judge, jury and executioner concerning who is to blame for Winehouse's death, it certainly leaves the door open for some highly reasonable finger pointing at opportunistic father and her most famous romantic partner, Blake, who seemed more like a typical enabler than anyone pushing her into something she wasn't already doing or thinking about doing. The film also comes down hard on the British tabloid press, who were a fixture outside her apartment, waiting for a drugged-out Winehouse to stumble out her front door.

While establishing a timeline for major events in her life, Amy gives us our first clear account of what led to what. Most of the heartbreak and substance abuse happened prior to Winehouse releasing her second album, Back in Black, making that award-winning record a perfect chronicle of her troubled existence. The filmmakers not only allow many of her songs to play nearly all the way through, but they put the lyrics on screen, resulting in a handful of moments when real life collides with art. The doc always opts for interviews and footage featuring friends and collaborators, rather than a parade of famous fans talking about her influence and impact on their music. The result is a far more intimate and emotional experience that doesn't shy away or gloss over her very real issues with drugs, alcohol and bulimia.

Winehouse's appeal to many was that she was, in many way, a typical working-class girl from London who happened to have this incredible voice. But that unimpressive background also made her target, as if somehow she wasn't worth of her fame and fortune. If Amy proves one thing, it's that she was a gifted writer and songstress, as well as a professional troublemaker. As an admirer of her work, I always assumed she'd pull her life together as part of an effort to get a third album done, and it appeared she was on the verge of doing just that. But at age 27, her fragile body simply gave out after years of abuse.

Whether you knew her work well or only knew her through the warped eye of the entertainment media, this film opens up her world to us and makes her as much a deeply realized character as any feature film about her might down the line. Hearts will be broken; tears will be shed; and her life and music is appropriately examined and honored, both as a cautionary tale and a celebration. Amy is a tremendous document of a dreamer whose downfall was practically in her DNA, but thanks to Bennett's end-of-film tribute to Winehouse, he makes it clear that sometimes the best don't last the longest, and they don't need to to make a huge impact on the world of music. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Amy director Asif Kapadia & producer James Gay-Rees, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Batkid Begins

You may think there are certain superheroes you can go toe to toe with, but I promise you, you are no match for a 5-year-old in a tiny Batman costume; he'll have you weeping like an infant, trust me. No matter how hard-hearted you might be or cynical about the kindness of the world, you're going to lose your mind when you see Batkid Begins, a chronicle of the Make-a-Wish Foundation's day in San Francisco devoted to making one young boy with leukemia have his wish to be Batman come true. I'm sure you saw highlights of the day online or your local news, but Batkid Begins pieces together everything that went into making the experience happen, and in the process banded an entire city together.

There's not much to say about Batkid Begins beyond that. If you're unnaturally repulsed by feelings, you should probably avoid the film, but normal humans will be bowled over watching how quickly and efficiently city workers and other bureaucrats can be when they have a cause that makes them feel good. Thousands of people put out the call, donated money and time so that the city didn't have to spend a dime to stage the event; actors were brought in to play a grown-up Batman and a few of his more popular villains. It appears that most, if not all, of the footage is taken from professional and amateur camera operators capturing small moments along the planned route through a transformed Gotham City. By the time the day was done, even President Obama was congratulating Miles on a job well done.

Director Dana Nachman (The Human Experiment, Witch Hunt) has done an impressive job piecing together what had to be thousands of hours of footage into this touching, under-90-minute love letter to people getting it collectively right. It should be noted that director Kurt Kuenne (Dear Zachary, credited here as a co-writer with Nachman) came in to help finish the film in a time crunch situation. For uber-geeks out there, one of the best interviews is with composer Hans Zimmer (who scored all three of Christopher Nolan's Batman films), who was so inspired by Miles strength that he wrote a little theme music for him, and gives us one of the best explanations about why Batman is so important to so many people.

It's almost unbelievable to see San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee become a part of this wild day, but there they are. But above all else, seeing the usually shy Miles just pop off the screen when he puts on the costume and do superhero poses in front of so many onlookers is one of the funniest and most inspired moments you'll have in movies all year. Don't even think about it: grab every member of your family, especially the young ones (don't be scared that a very sick little boy is at the center of this), and go check out this glorious little movie. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Murder in the Park

If you lived in Illinois at the time, it's almost impossible to forget the outcome even if you don't remember (or were never told) the details of the original case. In 1999, just hours before his scheduled execution, convicted double-murderer Anthony Porter's life was effectively saved by a journalism class from Northwestern University, led by renowned Innocence Project pioneer, Prof. David Protess. As the narrative went, the class not only stopped an innocement man from being executed but found the real killer, Alstory Simon. And this discovery not only got Porter released, but he was pardoned and became the face of the anti-death penalty movement in the state, which culminated in then-Gov. George Ryan abolishing the death penalty in Illinois.

What is less known — and was certainly less reported — is that in all likelihood, Northwestern's investigation led to the release of the real killer and imprisoned an innocent man. Filmmakers Shawn Rech and Brandon Kimber harrowing and compelling documentary A Murder in the Park compiles all the evidence and flawed media coverage of the case from all angles, and walks us step by step through the original 1982 incident as told by all parties involved (police, the two accused men in the Chicago double homicide, members of the media who covered the story as it unfolded, and many of the witnesses, including several who changed their stories more than once). Like all great true-crime documentaries whose outcome you aren't sure about, this film unfolds methodically and precisely. The twists and turns this case took would have felt far-fetched as a fiction film, and some of the roads it takes us down are a surprise even to the filmmakers.

This re-examination of the facts (and fictions) in these killings, the initial investigation, and subsequent investigative tactics by the Northwestern team led to the Cook County State's Attorney's office reopening this case in October 2013. The film digs into the facts of the original case and dives deep into all of the investigations leading up to the trials. I was actually relieved to see a film in which the only people who didn't screw or allow themselves to become corrupt were the police, who did their job by the book and arrested the right guy. But the directors' examination into Prof. Protess and a private investigator he used to intimidate witnesses is a shocking bit of storytelling.

A Murder in the Park does a remarkable job of keeping a complicated case organized and easy to follow, despite the many players and ever-changing narrative. Directors Rech and Kimber have a television documentary background and manage (most of the time) to lay out every detail in as unbiased a manner as they can. The film looks at why the media ate up every word Protess gave them without checking whether his facts were correct, why certain witnesses told one story to one person and another to someone else, why Simon initially confessed to the crime, and why the State's Attorney's office allowed the railroading of one man, while another was pardoned by the governor.

It's a shocking and revealing work that should be required viewing to anyone who believes what their hear on television news or read in the newspaper, and the lessons learned from this case (which is still a living, breathing thing) should be taught in journalism schools across the world. If anything, it teaches us that people hate to admit when they have made a massive, humiliating mistake. It's something we see evidence of every day in every part of our lives, but the people who come forward and admit a mistake, no matter how small or colossal, are better people for it. This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking and investigative journalism, and well worth your time in seeking it out. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

A Murder in the Park co-directors Shawn Rech & Brandon Kimber and executive producer Andrew Hale will be present for audience discussion at the Friday, July 10, screening. Shawn Rech will also be present at all screenings on Friday, July 17, and Saturday, July 18.

Following the Saturday, July 11, screening, I'll be moderating a panel discussion featuring co-director Shawn Rech; author and retired Chicago Tribune investigative reporter William Crawford; Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn; Executive Director, Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, Northwestern University, Locke Bowman; and journalist and Executive Director, Emeritus, Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University, Rob Warden.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with A Murder in the Park co-director Shawn Rech.

The Tribe

Holy hell! I don't think I'm overstating or using hyperbole when I say that you have never seen another film quite like The Tribe before, and now it's up to you as to discover if that's a good or bad thing. Making his debut feature (which won multiple awards at last year's Cannes Film Festival), writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy has set his film in a high school for the deaf, which seems quaint enough, I suppose. But this is a school in the Ukraine, and things are apparent a lot more fucked up in the Ukarine. Every one of these kids is either a horrific thug or a hapless victim; they all use sign language, as you would expect; and for reasons unknown, Slaboshpytskiy has opted not to subtitle a single word of the film. But you can't exactly claim that you don't know what the characters are saying, because most of the time, it's fairly clear. Other times, however, it isn't at first, but as the scene goes on (most of the sequences are done in long, single takes) and the moment reveals itself, quite often a sense of absolute dread fills your stomach. And when the scene is done, your throat is filled with bile...in the best possible way.

We don't even know the characters' names, but I did dig up the name of the lead new student, Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), who begins Day One at his new boarding school by having his money taken and being generally abused by his classmates. The students are involved in every imaginable shady activity, including violence, extortion, prostitution, drugs — it's all there, and it's all tough to watch, especially with Slaboshpytskiy's unblinking eye. The more aggressive the signing becomes, the more you can almost hear the angry screening of the kids doing it. As an audience member, it feels like an intrusion to watch these kids, but it's also impossible to pry your eyes from their shocking behavior.

The Tribe feels more like an experience than a simple film, and everything we're seeing — random acts of cruelty, a kitchen counter abortion, graphic sex acts, untold violence — feels like it's leading up to something. And when it gets there, we're almost numb to how horrific things become in a flash. Sergey realizes as soon as he arrives at the school that he must prove himself as criminally insane as the rest of them or be a victim his whole time there. And when you take a good kid and make him alter his brain so severely, well, the end of this movie happens.

Lest you think I'm not recommending the film, I absolutely am. But if you asked me whether I liked The Tribe, that's a tougher question. The Tribe is something of an endurance test, a gauntlet toward a new way of watching movies. You yourself feel like you're not using one of your usual senses as you observe gestures rather than hear words. You also find yourself realizing that if the kids aren't looking at each other, they can't hear each other, so sometimes we know more about what people are saying to each other than they do. It's an utterly singular experience, and one I won't soon forget (even on nights when I'd like to). If you see a lot of films in a given year and have an open mind, The Tribe will likely floor you and burrow into your brain. Enjoy that. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Jimmy's Hall

Director Ken Loach has always been something of an anomaly among his British peers. Making films since the 1960s, Loach never allowed himself to be tempted by the lure of Hollywood, even when some top-notch actors from across the pond have come to England to be a part of his brand of socialist realism. For those familiar with his more overtly political works such as Kes, Raining Stones, Ladybird Ladybird, Bread and Roses (a film actually set in Los Angeles), My Name Is Joe and The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his latest work Jimmy's Hall may feel like a bit like Loach is pulling back from his rabble-rousing days to make a nice period film in rural Ireland. Don't you bet on it.

Set in the early 1930s, Jimmy's Hall concerns the return of James Gralton (Barry Ward) from the United States to his hometown to look after his ailing mother (Aileen Henry) and because the stateside Depression has left him destitute. With few prospects at home either and at the urging of the local youth, Jimmy begins to remember the dance hall he helped run 10 years earlier, and with the encouragement of many in the town, he decides to reopen it for dances as well as various educational classes (dancing, singing, etc.). For reasons that seem to be tied to the church's concern that having a secondary place for the townspeople to meet other than the church, the local religious leadership, led by Father Sheridan (Jim Norton), objects to opening the hall again and even calls out those that do attend its opening dance as full-on sinners, satanists and, worst of all, communists. He even calls jazz "the devil's music," so yes, I suppose Jimmy's Hall is a spin on the Footloose storyline.

But that's about where the quaintness ends. Before long, factions crop up in the town, and as in today's religious wars, the liberals aren't quite prepared for how nasty the church folks can get, with public humiliation, vandalism and threats of violence. Both sides lose members as things heat up, but thankfully Loach and writer (and frequent collaborator) Paul Laverty have a firm grasp of time and place and never let things get over-the-top brutal. This clash of idealism and beliefs turns into a class war (Ireland at the time was dangerously close to its own Civil War), as activists representing tenant farmers getting tossed off their property by land owners begin to rally support in the hall. This is more familiar Loach territory, and as long as you're prepared for a bit of speechifying and a brief history lesson, you should be okay.

Jimmy's Hall also dares to be a love story of sorts as Jimmy reconnects with his old girlfriend, Oonagh (Simone Kirby), who happens to be married with children, but why should that stop them? Not unlike his closest American contemporary, John Sales, Loach sticks to his guns as a filmmaker, never concerning himself with commercial success but never letting that stop him from making entertaining fare. He still uses film stock, and his movies always look better than you might expect a maverick's films to look. His subjects and characters may be rough around the edges, but his images are quite often perfect and luminous. Jimmy's Hall is a worthy film about cultural warfare that turns into actual warfare in the end, and it reminds us what many of Loach's films teach us: it's often a long road to achieve even the smallest bit of hope for the future. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Sunset Edge

Recalling the early works of David Gordon Green, writer-director David Peddle's first feature film (he's done two documentaries before this) Sunset Edge is a naturalistic effort that takes aimlessness and turns it into art as it tells two similar yet distinct stories about young, wandering teenagers and has them collide in an abandoned trailer park, in tense and briefly horrific ways. The film deals very much with the past, especially in the case of one lone kid named Malachi (Gilberto Padilla), who grew up in the park with his recently deceased grandfather and still hides out there, collecting what little remembrances there are of his time there. One suspects that he has hints of danger in him, especially when we find out that one of the trailers was home to a killer, and while it seems for a moment that the identity of the killer will become a focus for the filmmaker, he has other interests at heart.

Coming into the park to hang out, eat a whole lot of sugar and skateboard are four suburban teens who have no idea they are being observed/stalked. And as the sun and sugar get to them, they begin to falls asleep in various places in the park and Malachi takes a few of their things. There's an entire section of the film in which the kids are separated just as the sun is going down, so naturally they run into the woods, where it's even darker and scarier, and for a brief moment I thought things were going to get ugly. There are flashbacks to two of the teens enjoying an aggressive paintball excursion at the park days earlier, and eventually you figure out how all of the pieces fit together (including some truly creepy shots of an elderly woman with long wispy hair blowing in the wind wandering around the park (perhaps Malachi's grandmother or just another resident of the eerie location.)

Our tendency with films like Sunset Edge (or some Terrence Malick films, for that matter) is to wish there was more structure, more story. But I think that approach would ruin what's special about this work. The film is meant to ramble and have long passages with little or no dialogue, allowing us to make associations and figure out connections and important plot points. There's no harm is asking the audience to work a bit, as long as the film is worth the effort. I think there's a real chance we're seeing the beginning of something elevated in Peddle's work. There's an emotional resonance to the film that grows primarily out of Padilla's heartbreaking take on Malachi, but without it, the movie is dust. It's a close call, but I think a new filmmaker with a vision like this should be encouraged, if not whole-heartedly celebrated. It's a decent first effort, and I feel, if given the chance, he'll get better. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

Sunset Edge writer-director David Peddle will take part in post-screening Q&As after the 7pm and 9pm showings on Friday, July 10 and Saturday, July 11.

What We Did on Our Holiday

There are quite a few top-notch performers in this odd and weirdly charming piece about a family in collapse trying to learn to hold it together for a single day. Separated couple Abi and Doug (Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike and former Dr. Who David Tennant) come together for the occasion of his father's sizable 75th birthday party. No one outside of the pair and their three children know about the separation, and Doug would like to keep it that way so as not to upset his already quite ill father Gordie (Billy Connolly). They bicker all the way on the long drive from London to seaside Scotland, and it becomes fairly clear that each of the kids is a touch strange as a result of growing up in a tumultuous home.

Upon the family's arrival, Gordie decides he'd like to spend the morning of his party going to the beach with the grandkids, the only people in his family he can stand to be around. Although they are sworn to secrecy, it comes as no surprise when the kids start to accidentally drop hints about their parents' impending divorce to their dad's controlling brother (Ben Miller) and his nervous wreck of a wife (Amelia Bullmore) just as the party planning gets in to full swing.

The most enjoyable part of What We Did on Our Holiday is the sequence in which the kids and Gordie stroll to the beach and talk. He seems to be the only one in the extended family who can speak their language and to whom their eccentricities make sense. Part of their conversation involves granddad's final wishes about his funeral, which he wants to be a viking funeral — cast him out to sea and shoot flaming arrows at the raft. And wouldn't you know it, granddad dies right on the beach. So naturally the kids build a raft out of driftwood, pour gasoline over the vessel, light it, and push it out into the water. Getting a bit creeped out right now? I was too, but somehow it makes sense in this context (and only in this context).

Some movies might have wrapped things up in a heartwarming way with that final image of the burning raft drifting with the tide out to sea, but What We Did on Our Holiday takes a sharp, less fulfilling turn at this point, when the children come back to the house to let everyone know what has happened. The last 20 minutes or so of the film involve the media frenzy that erupts when news of the grandpa burning gets out, and the tabloid assault brings the whole family closer together in a united front to defend what these young children did, which was simply carry out their beloved grandfather's wishes. The entire conclusion feels awkward and tacked on, and even the skilled actors here can't save it from feeling like generic criticism of the behavior of the UK press. Throw in a social worker who is brought in to assess whether the children are a danger to themselves or others, and by the end, you just want everything to be over and wrap up peacefully, because there's never any doubt in your mind that's where things are headed.

Writer-directors Andy Hamilton & Guy Jenkin are British television veterans, and this is effectively their first feature film. They have a talent for creating intimate moments that squeeze your heart just enough to make it hurt, but not enough to say you get truly invested in these characters. Tennant and Pike are better than the material by a nose, but even they seem to be struggling toward the end to make it through some of the preaching that's going on. When the film focuses on the family, it tends to work. Connolly is quite spirited and fun to watch, even though he's playing a dying man. What We Did on Our Holiday is a tad too messy and uneven to fully recommend, but fans of these actors might want to see it in the name of being a completist. There are worse ways to go. The film opens in Chicagoland today at the AMC South Barrington 30 in Barrington.

 
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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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