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Column Fri Aug 07 2015

Fantastic Four, The Gift, Shaun the Sheep Movie, The End of the Tour, Dark Places, Ricki and the Flash, A LEGO Brickumentary, Best of Enemies & More

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Fantastic Four

The goal of any film based on a comic book (or novel or stage play or television series, etc.) is not to be as much like the source material as possible; the mission should always be to be as cinematic as possible, which means combining competent storytelling with the visual medium. So the fact that this new take on Fantastic Four is based on Marvel's Ultimate comics take on the team doesn't mean squat if the final product is poorly paced, generic superhero garbage. Director Josh Trank's previous film, Chronicle, was an ambitious and creative alternate take on both the superhero mythology and the found-footage storytelling device. And with Fantastic Four, Trank (who also co-wrote with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) appears to have retreated (or been forced to retreat) into a style of storytelling that is so ordinary and predictable that one has to wonder why he was hired to take on this iconic group in the first place.

I'll give the film points for not being the same lightweight, jokey take on the team that director Tim Story thought was appropriate 10 years ago, but what we've got instead isn't much better. One of the strangest things about Fantastic Four is that it feels like it's missing a reel. After spending a ridiculous amount of time giving us this new version of the origin story, the team has exactly one massive fight sequence, and then the film is over. It genuinely feels like something got lost in the editing room, not that I'm in any way suggesting that the film is too short, but at only a 100-minute running time (including credits) you have to question the abruptness of the final act.

The origin story begins when childhood pals, brainy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and brauny Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), build a teleportation machine that they believe can send objects from where they are to the other end of the world and then bring it back. But with the help of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), they soon realize that the machine is actually teleporting objects to another dimension. Somehow Richards has cracked the return trip part of the experiment, something Storm and his team at the scientific braintrust known as the Baxter Institute have yet to do. Storm's adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) are also brought in to build the final machine, which they not only get to work but are able to capture images from the other dimension's landscape. Storm also taps a former student, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), to help out since he had spearheaded the original teleportation project.

When the money men behind the project (led by Tim Blake Nelson's Dr. Allen) make the call that it's time to send humans to the other side, Reed, Victor and Johnny decide that rather than hand over the glory of being the first humans to visit another dimension to some sanctioned astronaut type, they'll take the machine for a test run first. Reed brings his buddy Ben in for the ride, and soon they're dimension hopping. It takes about five seconds for something to go wrong, and before long, the world around them starts spurting out green goo that gets on their skin and instigates physical changes. But before they are able to return to Earth, Victor is separated from the group and is ultimately left behind, presumably to die.

Here's the biggest issue with both versions of Fantastic Four, but perhaps even more so in this new one: these characters are really boring before getting their powers. And Trank's iteration of the story has far too much time before the rock-encrusted Thing shows up, or Johnny's body is engulfed in flame, or Reed's limbs stretch, or Sue (who is exposed to this other-worldly stink when the three other FF members return and an explosion sends particles all over the lab) can become invisible. One really odd take on this story is that Reed escapes the facility and is on the run for a year, during which the military turns The Thing into a weapon of massive destruction and is training Johnny to do the same, once he can prove he's capable of controlling his power. All the while, the powers that be are working on building another teleportation machine so they can find ways to give other, better trained people powers. But the fact that Reed is caught and seems willing to help finish the machine made me question why running away was such an important detail.

The portrayal of these characters in action is actually well done. Seeing Richards use his stretching powers to fight and dodge attack is impressive. The CGI-created Thing looks great (I like the crunchy, rock-on-rock sound he makes when he moves). The Human Torch looks about the same, but watching him throw fireballs and ignite just parts of his body at a time was a nice touch. And the film explore's Sue's capacity beyond just turning invisible — using her powers to make other things invisible and generate a force field around herself and others. And we get to see them use their powers exactly one time before the movie decides it's done. At the exact moment when we get to a point where these four realize they're a team, the movie decides to end, almost daring us not to get excited for sequel. I accept that challenge.

And then there's Doom. Not surprisingly, Victor doesn't die. Instead, his protective suit is melded to his body, and his mind is corrupted by the energy from the other dimension. Sure he kills a few people when he's brought back to Earth, but all of the subtle twinges of jealousy at Reed's intelligence and relationship with Sue that we see early in the film are thrown out the window in favor of pure psychotic madness. And relatively speaking, he's a pushover to defeat. Doctor Doom is a complete failure as a worthy villain, and the way he's handled is the film's greatest miscalculation.

While the front half of Fantastic Four mostly works on a purely sci-fi level, I kept waiting for the characters to pop off the screen, preferably before their super powers are introduced into the mix. But nothing about these people made me care about the upheaval and trauma that is caused to them by these abilities. There's a bit of melancholy surrounding Grimm's predicament of being forever physically isolated from others, but it's never explored fully. You can literally tick off the succession of missed opportunities in this movie. With a cast of such impressive young actors, it seems a shame to have them all struggling to find some heart in these sketches meant to be humans beings. The film is a textbook example of the dangers of hiring young, untested directors who display a spark of creativity when they are allowed to work uninhibited by piles of notes. Either let these filmmakers do the thing that made you want to hire them in the first place or leave them alone. Don't hire them for the vibe; hire them because they have a take on material that might make it interesting. Rest assure, Fantastic Four is in no way interesting.

The Gift

If you've been watching the commercials and trailers for The Gift and think it's about a guy from Simon's (Jason Bateman) past who comes back to stalk him, that's good, because that's not what the film about at all, and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised about what it actually is. The film comes courtesy of actor and co-star Joel Edgerton, who wrote and directed The Gift, in which he plays Gordo, who is in fact a slightly weird guy who knew Simon in high school. The two were never close, not in the conventional sense, but they did change each other's lives at the time. Simon and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved to LA, and they run into Gordo in a store. Before long, he's at their door with a welcome gift, and he keeps showing up at their home day after day until it becomes rather awkward.

While Simon heads to his new job day after day, Robyn is busy arranging the house. It becomes clear that there are many other reasons the two moved to town beyond Simon's work and one of them has to do with a stress-induced miscarriage that Robyn had, so it's established early that her suspicions and paranoia might be the result of her tendency toward anxiety, rather than having any basis in reality. But she seems pretty certain that the history that Simon and Gordo have is more than as passing acquaintances in high school. And while it may appear that Gordo possesses the creep factor in the early part of the film, Edgerton's smart script does an impressive flip as Robyn digs into their shared past.

The Gift is a skillfully moody and tense work that turns into an examination of how long people hold onto past hurts. It's also very much a work about the long-term psychological damage of bullying. I'm not saying it isn't also about being entertaining and changing our ideas about what constitutes good people and bad people, but it's far more complicated that simply having Mr. Creepy stalk this lovely couple. Edgerton is too smart to produce something that cut and dry, and the result is flawed but still impressive.

The film brings in an interesting and impressive array of supporting players, including Busy Phillips, Allison Tolman, Katie Aselton, David Denman and Wendell Pierce as various neighbors, family members and police, but does very little with them to enhance the film, with the exception of Tolman as Simon and Robyn's next-door neighbor, who at least makes an impression as the closest person Robyn has to a confidante. Although not the first time he's done it, it's nice to see Bateman stretch himself as an actor, playing both the good husband and transitioning into something less so, something more controlling and sinister. The comedic baggage that Bateman brings with him to any role works as a great misdirect for this story.

The film's final act stumbles a bit, when a scenario presents itself that involves Robyn getting pregnant again, and everyone having to worry again about her anxiety levels right around the time when concerns about Gordo as a threat come to a head. As a writer, Edgerton has given us great throwback thrillers like The Square and Felony, which are more crime dramas than genre films. The Gift reminds me of practically every Fatal Attraction rip off of the early 1990s; think Pacific Heights or Single White Female. But Edgerton attempt to offer up a (mostly) reasonable explanation as to why someone might fixate the way Gordo does. He's also not afraid to play with the tools of these type of films to tell his story, mislead us, and steer us in unexpected directions.

It may or may not surprise you to learn that one of The Gift's producers is Jason Blum, which is also something of a sly trick since it would lead you to believe the film fits easily into the horror persuasion, where it certainly does not belong. If you give the movie a chance, you'll find it to be a smart, edgy piece with a great undercurrent of a message about the damage that we do to other people when we're young simply because we can. Don't be surprised if your allegiances shift and you still manage to have a great time being fully entertained.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

If you see only one animated film this summer in which the characters speak an indecipherable language that still makes it pretty clear what they're saying, make it Aardman Animation's latest, Shaun the Sheep Movie. Originally plucked from the Wallace & Gromit short A Close Shave and given his own long-running series in Britain (130 seven-minute episodes so far), Shaun (voiced by Justin Fletcher) is an adorable enigma, surrounded by close sheep friends and other animals housed by The Farmer (John Sparkes), a nice enough fellow, although he gives the sheep regular shearing, which they don't appreciate.

Bored and a bit fed up with the repetitive nature of farm living, Shaun and some of his pals decide to take a day off, using an ingenious way to trick the farmer into thinking it's still nighttime (bribing the farm's rooster to keep its mouth shut is, naturally, part of the plan), but the scheme goes sideways, the farmer gets a knock on the noggin and ends up in the "big city" with no idea who he is. Naturally, the sheep rally the troops to save him, with the hopes of getting everyone safely back to the farm.

For those heathens unfamiliar with Aardman's style of stop-motion (or stop-frame) animation using mostly clay figures, it's a charming, very human style of animation that younger people still respond to because it feel tactile, like something they could get their hands on and play with. It doesn't hurt that the characters are adorable and engaging in some of the most surreal, dialogue-free situations you'll ever see in a family film. There's a sequence set in a restaurant that is so bizarre and funny, I wanted to shake the hands of the people who wrote, directed and animated it. And while it's true Shaun the Sheep Movie has no understandable dialogue to speak of, it doesn't play like a silent film; it seems more of a spiritual cousin to the works of Jacques Tati, whereby there is certainly noise and communication, just not in any conventional sense.

Writers-directors Mark Burton (who was a writer on Aardman's The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, as well as Madagascar) and Richard Starzak (who has directed episodes of the "Shaun the Sheep" series, Wallace & Gromit shorts, and Creature Comforts shorts) do an extraordinary job focusing on details of each scene, as well as finding sly ways to comment on society and the perils of celebrity. When the farmer stumbles out of the hospital, he wanders into a hair salon where he grabs a set of clippers and instinctively shaves someone's head like he would one of his sheep. Turns out the style become a major trend, and the Farmer becomes a hugely famous hair stylist. Along with his fame comes trouble, and before long, the sheep have found their man, who of course doesn't recognize them.

Shaun the Sheep Movie works because its ideas are simple, the oddball quotient is turned up high, and underlying it all is a sweetness that is essential. The stop-fame universe that Aardman has created is a place I want to visit. Hell, I want to live there. It's a place where creativity and intelligence are celebrated in equal measure with characters whose brains might not be firing on all cylinders. Even in a movie stuffed with sheep, each one has a unique personality and look, and each gets its moment to shine. It's tough not to love an Aardman production, but Shaun the Sheep Movie is particularly tough not to adore, so it's best not to resist.

The End of the Tour

The key to making any film about a famous person — whether it be documentary or feature film — is to make it interesting not just to admirers of said person, but to capture those who know nothing about them. I'm guessing there's a sizable quantity of people in this country who don't know the writings of the late David Foster Wallace, so it becomes the duty and challenge of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter of The End of the Tour Donald Margulies and director James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) to create a version of Wallace who is close to the real man, while also making it clear why his writings touched so many millions of readers before his suicide at age 46.

Of course, the genuine burden of birthing this character belongs to actor Jason Segel, who turns in a career-best performance as Wallace, a man who embodied both confidence in his talents and an innate shyness that kept him from being the social butterfly he (sometimes) wished he could be. People wanted to label him a hermit, but really, he just wanted to teach his Illinois State University students and live a stripped-down life that involved writing without having to explain his work to anyone. He seemed genuinely touched by those who were moved by his books, but annoyed by fans who invaded his privacy.

Wallace was a man who seemed to be a mass of contradictions when someone put him under the microscope, much like Rolling Stone reporter David Lipksy did in 1996, when he joined Wallace for the last few days of his Infinite Jest book tour, mostly spending time with him in his home and in Minneapolis for a book reading/signing. Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky as someone who was initially professionally jealous of Wallace's success (Lipsky was also a writer as well as a journalist), but sees the value in Rolling Stone's first profile of a writer in years.

The resulting film is virtually non-stop conversation between the two men, with Lipsky skillfully extracting (sometimes with both hands) facts and thoughts from Wallace that he's initially hesitant to let go of. Unlike the cocky arrogance Eisenberg displayed in The Social Network, here he gives us a type of friendly boldness and willingness to push a little too far to evoke a reaction. Certainly a case can be made (so I might just do so) that The End of the Tour is actually Lipsky's story of crossing paths with a man who would define his professional career. It's certainly not a biography of Wallace, although naturally personal details are a part of the interviewing process. As someone who frequently interviews people, I was drawn into these exchanges based largely on the strength of Lipsky's interview technique, and some may be shocked by the way he secretly takes inventory of Wallace's home and medicine cabinet, presumably for additional color in the article.

But Segel is a marvel as Wallace, surprising us with each new interaction and set of questions. A lesser film might have attempted to label his personality quirks as some strain of low-grade mental illness (there are certainly clues that manic-depression might play a factor in his life), but The End of the Tour is too smart for that. Segel glides from moment to moment with a fairly clear outlook on Wallace's thoughts on all subjects. As much as Wallace seemed to cherish his privacy, he also seemed to understand that if you agree to an interview, you should be honest and open. If you aren't willing to be that, don't do the press. It seems crucial to him that he doesn't just want to spill his guts to a stranger; he'd rather talk openly with friends (as fleeting as any friendship with a journalist might be).

And then there are the conversations themselves, which take place like we're listening in from the table next to these two. If you're someone who gets hung up on plot, you may be in for a much-needed shock. Lipsky drops a subject into place and gently, encouragingly extracts more and more detail about Wallace's views on popular culture, his musical tastes, celebrity, drug abuse, suicidal thoughts, and everything else you'd expect. But the film isn't simply an update of My Dinner With Andre with a touch of Almost Famous on the side.

When the pair hit the road to Minnesota, the dynamic becomes even more electric, bordering on confrontational. Joan Cusack as local book tour publicist/handler Patty is glorious as she lays on the enthusiasm just a tad too thick, but doesn't hesitate to voice her disapproval when Wallace and Lipsky decide to hang out with locals Julie (Mamie Gummer, a superfan whom Wallace has become friendly with) and Betsy (Mickey Sumner), an old girlfriend. The most tense moments in Wallace and Lipsky's time together occurs when Wallace thinks there is inappropriate flirting happening. The cold shoulder has rarely been so cold, even in Minneapolis.

The End of the Tour isn't meant to be a revealing document of Wallace's sometimes-troubled life, so to criticize it for not being flooded with details seems silly. It's a slice-of-life encounter that had something of an impact on both men, despite the fact that, in the end, Lipsky never wrote the Rolling Stone piece, and instead turned their encounter into a memoir after Wallace's death. Thankfully, the work never turns into some outlandish guessing game as to why Wallace killed himself 12 years later, because that isn't the point of this specific moment in history. Instead, there are moments of pure joy — a trip to a movie theater to see John Woo's Broken Arrow or probing the depths of Alanis Morissette's first album stand out.

Ponsoldt is a director whose films keep getting better with each new one, and The Spectacular Now had already set the bar pretty high. But The End of the Tour, with strong support from a tremendous screenplay, is an early candidate for one of the best of the year.

To read my exclusive interview with The End of the Tour star Jason Segel, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Dark Places

It's my understanding that author Gillian Flynn's Dark Places (written just before her mega-best seller Gone Girl) is quite a great read, with parallel timelines, both intent on uncovering the mystery of who killed Libby Day's mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters when she was just a young girl. Her brother (played at age 16 by Tye Sheridan) was put in prison for life, largely due to Libby's testimony, and now 25 years later, her entire world is about to upended.

The bitter and troubled adult Libby is played by Charlize Theron, and she is about to go completely broke after royalties from her tabloid-style book have dried up and checks she used to get from strangers sympathizing with her situation stopped rolling in long ago. After all, there have been many other killings since her family's. Desperate for money, Libby agrees to meet with a kill club (made up of true-crime enthusiasts led by Nicholas Hoult's Lyle) to answer their questions about that fateful night and whether Libby (played as a child by Sterling Jerins) told the truth on the stand or just what the police told her to. The kill club members soon reveal that they don't believe young Ben Day committed the crime, and they are actually seeking Libby's help to open up a few doors in their investigation. She reluctantly agrees, for more money, but it's clear that she's in desperate need of revisiting a period in her life she has almost no memory of any longer.

Dark Places jumps back and forth between the present day and the weeks leading up to the murders. Various other possible suspects crop up, including Libby's waste of a father, Runner (Sean Bridgers), and Ben's hyperactive girlfriend Diondra (Chloe Grace Moretz), but Ben's love of heavy metal music and the occult make him an easy target. The story has recognizable shades of the West Memphis 3 case in many places. Writer-Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah's Key) injects a bit of nasty, freaky visual references here and there, but there's really no way audiences could ever guess what really happened that night with the facts put on screen.

Some of my favorite scenes are between Libby and adult, imprisoned Ben (Corey Stoll). She's convinced he did it, but at the same time she baffled why he never filed an appeal if he's not guilty, and he seems okay doing the time for the crime. The film might be a little too complicated for its own good, and some character motivations are a bit suspicious, bordering on unbelievable. Dark Places certainly isn't a terrible film, but it isn't a particularly interesting one either, outside of some strong performances. That alone might make it worth checking out (I won't lie, seeing Theron and Hoult together again after Mad Max: Fury Road made me smile), and I'm guessing Flynn enthusiasts will be happy with the adaptation, but there is so much better out in theaters right now. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Ricki and the Flash

You know, not every film that features two Oscar-winning actors, an Oscar-winning director, an Oscar-winning writer, the offspring of an Oscar-winning actor, the Winter Soldier, and the Grammy-winning singer of "Jessie's Girl" has to be outstanding. In fact, director Jonathan Demme's Ricki and the Flash has a few things going for it, chief among them are its musical moments from Meryl Streep fronting a band that plays covers while her between-song banter seems to be decidedly geared toward red staters. Streep's Ricki is an aging singer who made the choice many years earlier to leave her husband (Kevin Kline) and three children to pursue a life of rock music; she even put out an album. And now she's playing Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Lady Gaga and Pink covers with her band The Flash, which includes lead guitarist and her sometime love interest Greg (Rick Springfield).

With absolutely nothing going on in her life and no money to her name, Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband imploring her to come home because their daughter Julie (played by Streep's real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) has split with her philandering husband. When Ricki arrives, she realizes that things are much worse than she'd been led to believe, and she may be ill-equipped to handle the emotional baggage of the situation, but she throws herself into her daughter's life and attempts to bring her out of her deep depression.

Working from a script by Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), Streep doesn't get a lot to work with in Ricki. Aside from being something of wreck in her own life, she's often insufferable as a human being relating to other human beings. Streep has loaded her with quirks, both in her movements and her speech, and it makes it seem that the actress is making up her dialogue as she goes. Still, there is a strange and comforting bond between Streep and Gummer that works and doesn't feel as forced as other parts of the film, namely the scenes with Ricki and her two grown sons, Daniel (Ben Platt), who is gay and afraid to tell his mother; and Joshua (Sebastian Stan), who is engaged to be married fairly soon, and is also afraid to tell his mother, because he doesn't want to invite her.

Other supporting players include a nice, all-too-brief turn by Audra McDonald as Maureen, Kline's second wife and the woman who effectively raised Ricki's children in her absence. She has a monologue aimed directly at Ricki that could become an anthem for loving step-parents everywhere. And Springfield is quite good as both an actor and musician (he's done a bit of both in his career) here, giving a bit of weight to the role of the ill-treated love interest whom Ricki is afraid of committing to for no particular reason.

But too much of Ricki and the Flash feels like plot and not enough like life. Although Demme has made a career out of grander films than this (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), he is often at his best at smaller films (Rachel Getting Married, Something Wild) and films about musicians, such as his concert films Stop Making Sense, Storefront Hitchcock and a trio of Neil Young performance works. But something about this one doesn't quite come together, despite one of his strongest casts in years. Ricki feels like more of a character and less like a person, and while other characters fare better on the believability spectrum, since Ricki is in pretty much every scene, Streep's unfocused work taints everything around her. It's a closer call than you might expect, but Ricki and the Flash, like the character herself, doesn't quite reach its potential.

A LEGO Brickumentary

I was somewhat nervous about this film, only because I was afraid it was going to focus too much on more recent LEGO-related projects like The LEGO Movie and LEGO-style cartoons. Thankfully, A LEGO Brickumentary barely touches on those topics, and it's all the better for it. In fact, if it doesn't involve the actual LEGO bricks and the creativity they inspire, it's probably not in the documentary at all. The real focus of the film is the LEGO company, its designer, master builders, and the millions of kids and adults that have been inspired to build using these deceptively simple interlocking bricks.

From co-directors Daniel Junge (an Oscar winner for the doc short Saving Face) and Kief Davidson (Oscar-nominated for the short Open Heart), A LEGO Brickumentary gives us a remarkable look behind the scenes at the Danish toy company that only makes products related to its base bricks (unlike other toy companies that diversify like rabbits), and the film is painfully honest about the rough years the company had when it got away from its core product and audience to appear more modern. The executives fully admit they stopped listening to their customers and paid the price. In more recent years, they've not only listened to customers; they've started accepting ideas from them, including one man who gave the company the idea to do an entire line of products based on famous architecture around the world, as is working on making functioning, scale roller-coaster sets.

Some of the most enjoyable parts of the film are about the fans — both children and AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO) — and the way the bricks are traded, original worlds are built and competitions are held at the massive BrickCon, an entire convention dedicated to LEGO bricks. The doc dives into the way the bricks can be used as therapy for learning disabled kids or just as a means to bring shy kids out of the shells. One of the most awe-inspiring parts of the film focuses on an artist who uses only LEGO bricks and had a massive gallery exhibit in New York City, in which presented both original pieces and re-creations of famous paintings and sculptures done in LEGO bricks. Hell, even the guy who does custom-made modern weapons for LEGO characters (since the company has a policy against doing it themselves) is kind of cool.

Narrated with the help of a friendly little LEGO figure voiced by Jason Bateman, A LEGO Brickumentary is dedicated to the spirit of creativity and far from the corporate infomercial you might expect. There's barely a mention of the many tie-in sets the company has with Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Marvel, DC or Star Wars, and that's because the customers the company seems to value most are people who built from scratch rather than follow directions. It's a fun doc that all ages can find some level of inspiration within, and it's also informative and entertaining. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Best of Enemies

A couple of years back, I saw a great documentary called Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia about the great leftist thinker, author, and social commentator. Within that film, a sizable portion was dedicated to Vidal's notorious 1968 series of debates with right-wing heavyweight William F. Buckley Jr. on ABC during both the Republican and Democratic conventions. Now and entire film, Best of Enemies, has been dedicated to these debates, which culminated in Buckley calling Vidal a "queer" and threatening him with physical violence for calling him a "crypo-Nazi" (you can see the glee in Vidal's eyes, having reduced this intellectual to a brute bully).

The film delves into both men's lives and a bit into the history they had with each other before these debates. Buckley was a rising star among conservatives, while Vidal was the gay cousin of Jackie Onassis who was a professional button pusher as both a writer and speaker. ABC was a struggling network that couldn't afford to cover every minute of the conventions as the other two networks did, so they provided highlights and offered the Buckley-Vidal debates as commentary. While we don't get to see every minute of every debate, the highlights are nevertheless electric and pure venom.

Directed by Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) and Robert Gordon (Johnny Cash's America), Best of Enemies is a wonderful reminder of the power (for good and destruction) of debate. Events become increasingly heated during the Democratic convention in Chicago, when riots break out in the streets and the police respond per then-mayor Richard J. Daley. Vidal can barely speak full sentences from being so full of rage, and even Buckley seems shaken by the events. It's a remarkable point of view from which to view this historic event, and other noted commentators like Dick Cavett and the late Christopher Hitchens offer up their views on the importance of these ratings-boosting on-air conflicts.

Best of Enemies is a thorough, expertly researched piece that puts these debates in the proper context to gauge their cultural significance. If I remember correctly, Buckley and Vidal never spoke again after they concluded the appearances, but they were both asked to comment on their lasting relevance and importance for the rest of their lives. I find this subject endlessly fascinating, and if you're up for working your brain a bit during the summer, this is a great place to start. The films opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Nine months after an unarmed Trayvon Martin was gunned down in Sanford, Florida, there was another similar shooting in Jacksonville, Florida, during which unarmed 17-year-old Jordan Davis was gunned down by Michael Dunn, who said he thought he said Davis holding a shotgun in an vehicle that was playing loud music. The fact that Dunn continued to fire into the vehicle (in which three other black teens were also riding) while it was backing away from Dunn's car led many to believe that this was a case of first-degree murder. The older white Dunn maintained that he was not guilty under the state's Stand Your Ground laws, and he was being threatened for asking the teens to turn their loud rap music down. The documentary 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets from director Marc Silver (Who Is Dayani Cristal?) is as complete an account of the crime and trial as you could want in a story like this. The only things missing is a video of the actual shooting.

The filmmakers were given total access to Dunn's trial, taped jailhouse conversations between Dunn and his fiancée that reveal his true feelings on the incident (although I don't believe the jury ever heard them), and Jordan's parents and friends, including the other boys in the vehicle and his girlfriend, whom he visited just minutes before the shooting. But it's the conversations with his parents that really drive home the personal loss of the situation. Jordan was a trouble-free kid who ran his mouth sometimes, but was never in trouble. The film really breaks down the trial and its subsequent media coverage, which dubbed it the "Loud Music Trial."

One of the most shocking pieces of the case was the testimony of Dunn's fiancée who took her vow to tell the truth so seriously that she ended up effectively burying Dunn in the eyes of the jury. The fact that he even had the possible protection of a Stand Your Ground defense is made to seem especially preposterous, but in light of the George Zimmerman verdict, Dunn's conviction was far from a given. Director Silver keeps a professional distance from the events and avoids commenting on crime or verdict, allowing instead all signs of emotion to come from his pained subject, and there are plenty to choose from. It's a moving work that will likely leave you outraged and eager to react.

The film is playing in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on August 9 at 3pm and August 10 at From August 8pm as part of the 21st Black Harvest Film Festival, running August 8 through September 3. The festival explores the stories, images, heritage, and history of the black experience in the U.S. and around the world through film and video, and the full schedule can be found at the Siskel Film Center's website.

At both showings of 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, Lucia McBath, mother of film subject Jordan Davis and national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense In America, will be present for audience discussion.

The Runner

It seems like about every other week, I get some email notification that a new Nicolas Cage film is being released straight to VOD or home video, with little or no exposure via the big screen, and that saddens me. I try to keep up, but it's not always easy when so many of his recent titles are flying so low under the radar. So when I got a notice about The Runner, I perked up, and without even reading what it was about, I asked to screen it for review. Imagine my surprise and delight a couple of days later when I viewed a fairly straight-forward, unassuming drama about do-gooder New Orleans politician Colin Price, who is trying to actually help his Gulf Coast constituents (primarily fishermen) in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill disaster. He makes an impassioned plea before Congress for federal assistance, and it makes national news, setting him up for a potential run for U.S. Senate.

I'm as big a fan of Cage's sometimes loopy on-screen eccentricities as anyone, but with The Runner, the actor is doing something just as compelling — he's digging his teeth into a role and giving one hell of a performance. Price takes meetings with potential big-money donors, including ones representing the oil industry, and all they ask in return for millions of dollars is for him to back down on his call to cease all drilling in the Gulf region. He's having none of it, and, as if on cue, an elevator video surfaces of Price bumping and grinding with the wife of a fisherman, throwing his world into scandal mode and wrecking his chances of getting elected. His opportunistic wife (Connie Nielsen) seems less bothered by the affair than the fact that he wasn't more careful and now can't ascend the political ladder, something they have both had their eyes on for some time.

As if to rub salt in his wounds, Price's father (a former beloved New Orleans mayor played by Peter Fonda), also sidelined by scandal, shows up to show his support and ends up just making everybody angry. Fonda is absolutely on fire as Rayne Price, with every word sounding both supportive and wickedly insulting and judgmental. Also impressive is Sarah Paulson as Kate Haber, Price's straight-talking advisor who leaves town after the scandal but is called back into the fray when Price fights for a comeback. She's one of the few people to shoot straight with him, but when they begin a tentative relationship, things become strained between them, especially since she's married with two kids in another city.

With his wife about to divorce him and his continued fight to help the fishing community draining his bank accounts, Price resorts to drinking and sleeping around, but some interesting turns make him a viable candidate once again, making his wife have second thoughts. What's impressive about the film (written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Austin Stark) is that The Runner is no story of redemption. It's an examination of the way a good-hearted, idealistic person can have their soul chipped away when they're on the verge of losing everything they hold dear. The message that Price is delivering by the end of the film is so far from the one he was touting in the opening that your heart is crushed. It's a devastating (and highly believable) final moment, delivered by a most capable actor. The film itself is getting a sparse opening this week, but I was genuinely shocked by how engaged I was with this material. It's comforting to see Cage the actor win out over Cage the spectacle this time. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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