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Column Fri Aug 14 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Straight Outta Compton, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoenix, People Places Things, Fort Tilden, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, Cop Car & Prince

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

In an era when we're getting James Bond films with actual backstories and continuity, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. might feel like a bit of a throwback to action-heavy spy movies that feel low stakes even when the stakes are supposedly quite high. But this is the place where director Guy Ritchie thrives, where the men believe they are in charge but the women hold the reigns because they're smarter. The setting for U.N.C.L.E. is the early 1960s, a particularly frigid period in the Cold War, but a fantastic time for fashion, music and a global enemy you could really hate, all of which factor into this tale of two super-spies forced by their respective agencies to team up to defeat a common enemy attempting to buy a few nuclear weapons and actually use them.

Based on the popular television series of the same name, starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, the new The Man from U.N.C.L.E. brings in two almost exaggeratedly manly men — Man of Steel's Henry Cavill as CIA agent Napoleon Solo and The Lone Ranger's Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin of the KGB — who initially clash when Solo sneaks into Russian-controlled East Germany to rescue Gaby (Alicia Vikander of Ex Machina), the daughter of an important German nuclear scientist who may hold the key to finding her father, who may or may not be willingly working for this mystery criminal organization buying nukes.

In an interesting summer trend begun in Mad Max: Fury Road and continuing in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (and no, I'm not comparing the three films in any way other than this trend), U.N.C.L.E. excels at what it's attempting to do because the female lead is actually better — or at least more important — than the men, whether the fellas realize it or not. In the case of Gaby, she's the only character in the whole movie that doesn't wear who motivations on her finely tailored sleeve. She's manipulating these two rivals, sometimes by throwing her favors in one or the other direction, but always for a reason or to gain an advantage.

Compare Vikander's work to that of relative newcomer Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) as the film's villainess Victoria, a cross between a trendy party girl and a classic model Bond villain, whose intentions are also completely clear because she has a habit of spouting them out loud. As a result, she's not nearly as interesting as Gaby, except to see what flashy outfits she changes into from one scene to another.

But above all else, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. strives (and succeeds) in being cool, from its setting to its stunts to its catchy score courtesy of Daniel Pemberton. The script from Ritchie (Snatch, the Robert Downey Jr. version of Sherlock Holmes and the upcoming Knights of the Roundtable: King Arthur) and Lionel Wigram, this film wants everyone involved to be having fun. This is spies at play, and no one realizes this more than Cavill, who is pure American cocky and cocksman. Hammer tends to work Illya with the emotional depth and sheer power of a sledgehammer, but his Russian accent is consistent, so we'll give him points for that. Throw in Jared Harris as Solo's American handler Sanders and the perfectly cast Hugh Grant as British intelligence's Alexander Waverly (who will end up running the newly created U.N.C.L.E. team that these two spies are now working for), and you've got yourself a delectable treat of a film.

The biggest problem with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that the two leads don't ever really mesh, even by the end when they're supposed to have set aside their differences and find out how to play off each other's strengths to work together. Sure, they have cute/insulting nicknames for each other, but that only takes us so far. And leaves us with Vikander to act as the glue that holds these relationships together, which she does admirably, albeit with mixed results. Still, the picturesque setting are photographed stunningly by cinematographer John Mathieson, the story is kept moving and fairly lightweight, and the stunt work is top notch. The bad guys aren't especially scary, but it might have almost felt out tune with the rest of the film if they had been.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is something of a mixed bag. I wish there had been more cultural friction between the male leads, but in a film already loaded with questionable allegiances, maybe keeping things simpler was the right call. The story is already unnecessarily convoluted for what essentially a tried-and-true "get the nuke away from the baddie" plot, it might seem indulgent to make things more confusing. I actually saw this film a few weeks ago, so I've had time to see if it really stuck with me or if it's a in-the-moment type of entertainment. Turns out, it stuck with me. It's flawed but thoroughly enjoyable. And I hope they do one more, then get out and move on.

Straight Outta Compton

Sometimes a music biopic is simply one re-enactment after another, linked together by a collection of the act's better known songs. Other times, it's a time capsule that illustrates the undeniable connective tissue between the music and the era in which it was recorded and released. In the late 1980s, there was a great deal of gang activity in South Central Los Angeles, but there was no larger or more feared gang than the L.A. Police Department, who would harass the residents of areas like Compton for simply being black or looking like "gang bangers." And while future N.W.A members Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) were music aficionados, listening to every note and instrument on their favorite R&B and funk records, young Ice Cube (played by Cube's dead-ringer son O'Shea Jackson Jr.) was a poet-chronicler of life on the streets of South Central.

Directed by F. Gary Gray (Friday, The Negotiator, The Italian Job), Straight Outta Compton chronicles the rise and fall of arguably the most important hip hop group in history, especially when you consider both their popularity and impact on even today's rap landscape (and not necessarily their longevity). Rounded out eventually by MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and their initial money man (and former drug dealer) Easy E (Jason Mitchell), N.W.A [Niggaz Wit Attitudes] came together almost by osmosis as a group of like-minded kids started to gel in a studio setting. The decision to put Easy-E behind the mic was almost by default, but with a little coaxing from producer Dre, he became a distinctive voice of the group and its de facto leader with the Ice Cube-penned "Boyz-n-the-Hood."

The film adds another layer of depth with the introduction of the group's manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who cuts a deal with Easy-E to start up Ruthless Records, effectively making the other members of N.W.A employees, a decision that shockingly comes back to bite them all. Heller could have been written or played like a shifty businessman, which he may well have been, but it also seems very clear that he elevated the group's profile and played a key role in making their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, a massive hit. In one especially pivotal moment, the group are harassed by police right outside the recording studio, and Heller is the only white man on the street defending their right to be there and not be brutalized by cops. The way the film paints the moment, Ice Cube goes back in the building and writes "Fuck tha Police," the song that placed them under the watchful eye of the FBI, a fact the group thought was great publicity. Do I believe that's how Ice Cube ended up writing that song? Not really. Does it make for great cinema? It certainly does.

Straight Outta Compton captures N.W.A in its prime, performing to sold out houses, partying like the world is ending tomorrow, and having run-ins with local law enforcement in many cities who order them not to play "Fuck tha Police," including cops in Detroit who incited a riot when the song started up, just to shut the show down. But the good times only last so long. When the rest of N.W.A gets their contracts to sign, Ice Cube (being the primary songwriter of hits) is unhappy with the arrangement and leaves the group to pursue a solo career that begins almost immediately with the release of the acclaimed AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, produced by The Bomb Squad (who were behind the boards for many of Public Enemy's most important recordings).

The history of back-and-forth diss tracks between N.W.A and Ice Cube is not ignored, but more socially relevant issues take center stage, most significantly the Rodney King beating and subsequent trial and riot, which had such a massive impact on the members of the group as creators of "reality rap." It was nice to see a scene where N.W.A members are listening to Cube's culturally on-point first album and loving it, which makes it all the more surprising the group saw fit to go after Cube like he betrayed them somehow.

Naturally, where there is big game, there are poachers, and the film does not spare former bodyguard turned record mogul Suge Knight (the appropriately terrifying R. Marcos Taylor), who goes hard after Dr. Dre as both a producer and hit artist, to come over to his label, Death Row Records. We get glimpses of Death Row dignitaries such as Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur in the studio, but we also see some of the subtle negotiating tactics that Knight is best known for used to attempt to secure Dre's contract from Ruthless. For most of its nearly 2.5-hour running time, Straight Outta Compton is filled with wonderful details that reminded me of my own personal discovery of hardcore hip hop at about this time. But it also provides a great deal of context and insight into the inner workings of the group that the general public wasn't privy to.

As I mentioned earlier, the film refuses to demonize Heller, and every time we think he's no good for the group, he does something that makes us realize that even while he may have been squirreling away money he didn't earn, he also really cared about his buddy Easy-E, saving his bacon on more than one occasion. Maybe he was protecting his investment, but the film doesn't seem to want us to think that was his only motivating factor. The men share a fascinating dynamic that Giamatti enhances beautifully.

Straight Outta Compton reveals just how close N.W.A almost came to reforming before Eazy-E was diagnosed with AIDS and died shortly thereafter, and the film makes it clear that one of his greatest contributions to history — music or otherwise — was to underscore that HIV could be transmitted among straight people as well. The movie is about the sometimes painful process of harnessing raw talent, and while Compton touches on Ice Cube's film career (beginning with Boyz n the Hood) and Dr. Dre's ridiculously successful The Chronic album, it's really about the age-old themes of egos and money denying the group and fans a chance to hear N.W.A make who knows how many more records with the original lineup.

This is a story that soars in many places, but there's a tinge of pain and grief about what might have been, and a loss that will make certain we never know. It's an epic story told skillfully by director Gray and screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, who gloss over a few of the problem areas (the portrayal of women is about as respectful as a rap music video). Your chances of enjoying the film are likely enhanced if you were a fan of the music, but I don't think it's entirely essential. The film moves along with a sustainable energy, dipping out only slightly from time to time. Even more important, the racial tension that serves as the film's backbone and backdrop seems as significant now as it did 25 years ago, and it begs the question, why are there so few high-profile hip hop artists today with this much in-your-face rage? Straight Outta Compton is not just a great film; it's an important one and it tells the story of an essential cornerstone of recent history.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

It's unlikely that any other film in recent memory has captured the teenage girl experience better than this story set in mid-1970s San Francisco. Of course, there is no such thing as a singular such experience, but what makes The Diary of a Teenage Girl so compelling and unique is that it dares to tell a story about 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) and her sexual and spiritual coming of age without demonizing the much older man ushering her into womanhood. In fact, first-time writer-director Marielle Heller (adapting Phoebe Gloeckner's novel, which Heller originally turned into a stage play) dares to not only present us with the scenario of a young girl sleeping with her mother's boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) but actually discovering she really enjoys sex.

Powley is a revelation, a young British actress largely unknown in the states, who manages to capture the awkward, sometimes childish aspects of Minnie, while eventually coming to realize that she is the most mature person in her world. There certainly isn't a great deal of competition, certainly not from her mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) or the handsome slacker boyfriend Monroe (Skarsgård), who Minnie throws herself at, and he's basically too lazy to resist when he should. The titular "diary" is actually a series of tape recordings that Minnie makes, detailing her sexual discovery that opens with, "Holy shit. I had sex today." The tapes double as a lively and explicit narration, but they also stand out as being a medium that someone will easily discover later in the film.

Minnie is such a richly drawn character that I actually started wondering things about her life that aren't even discussed in the film — questions about her taste in music and movies; her feelings on certain issues. I guess what I'm saying is that, if I was in high school, I'd be very interested in dating her. Director Heller uses animation sequences, a fantastic score and song choices, and a great deal of often dark humor to track Minnie's fluctuating and fickle emotions. She has sex with boys her own age, and in one quite telling sequence, allows one to give her a hickey just to see if Monroe (who always seems to be in a state of trying to end the relationship and never quite following through) will get jealous.

Even the inevitable discovery of the relationship by Minnie's mother doesn't unfold quite like one might imagine, and it's just one of the many reasons The Diary of a Teenage Girl works so spectacularly. It's not just about being provocative and shocking, although it may take you a few minutes to settle into the sexual frankness and inappropriateness of the goings on. The film's main objective is to be truthful, open and emotionally frank in a way that conveys the time and place of this specific story, and captures the universalities of many teenage girls everywhere. Minnie is an impressive young woman, and this film is something truly special. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Phoenix

One of the most talked about films on the festival circuit since last year's Toronto Film Festival is the latest collaboration between writer-director Christian Petzold and actress Nina Hoss (who both previously worked on Barbara and Jerichow). But Phoenix is an entirely different piece of magic and represents a truly brilliant bit of cinematic unfolding that will have your mind racing and expectations shattered by its jaw-dropping conclusion.

Hoss (who also starred in A Most Wanted Man) portrays Nelly, a German-Jewish nightclub singer circa 1945 Berlin. She somehow survived her long stay in a concentration camp, but was badly disfigured when she was shot in the face by her captors as the war was ending. Undergoing extensive reconstructive surgery, he is effectively reborn with an altered face and a new life, with most of her family having been killed. Under the care of Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), the two women plan an eventual migration to Palestine, but Nelly isn't quite prepared for such a move until she finds out for sure if her husband and piano accompanist Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is alive or dead.

In a twist worthy of Hitchcock himself, Nelly does find Johnny, but he doesn't recognize her as his wife, whom he believes is dead. But he sees enough similarities in this woman to attempt a scam involving her pretending to be Nelly to collect her inheritance and split it with him. Nelly is so in love with this man that she goes along with pretending to be this stranger pretending to be his dead wife. Before long, Nelly begins to suspect what others have told her is true — that Johnny, a non-Jew, turned her over to the Nazis to save his own skin. It's both a heart-crushing realization but also something that is wildly freeing, and Nelly goes along with Johnny's plan, almost as a dare to herself — or perhaps to wait for an opportunity to exact a very surgical means of revenge.

Phoenix was adapted by Petzold with his longtime collaborator Harun Farocki from a 1961 novel Le Retour des cendres by Hubert Monteilhet (it was previously made into the 1965 film Return from the Ashes), and it packs a substantial, sustained wallop. None of the characters, nor their motivations, are cut and dry. Johnny is the closest thing we get to a "bad guy," but he seems notably torn about his calculated decision, both during the war and in the present. For much of the film, Nelly is in denial about his role in her time in the camp, but her behavior isn't altered as much as her mental state. The film plays out like a psychological thriller, since we're never quite sure when or if or how Nelly is going to crack. It's a fascinating examination of how lives and the flattened landscape of Berlin continue in the immediate wake of World War II.

Hoss has an extraordinarily expressive face, but even with that, she manages to perfectly mask Nelly's feelings on certain aspects of her life until exactly the right moment for a revelation. The reason she has a similar face to her original one is because she begged the surgeon to make it so; she had her choice of looks of famous actresses, singers, etc., and she wanted to look like herself so her husband could recognize her. And the more Johnny changes her to look more like his wife, the more stunned he is at the similarities. There's even a chance he's falling for this "new" woman. The complications boggle the mind, but not as much as that ending, which won't be discussed here.

The piecing together of a life and of a country after traumatic events are two very different journeys, but somehow director Petzold makes them feel similarly painful as they desperately want to emerge for the better. Phoenix is easily in the running for one of the best films you'll see all year. It opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

People Places Things

Even with its dark corners and underlying sadness at the prospects of a broken family, the latest from writer-director Jim Strouse (Grace Is Gone, The Winning Season), People Places Things, is a warm and sweet effort that finds a way to make a divorce comedy that doesn't rely on spouse bashing as a primary source of laughs. In it, Jermaine Clement ("Flight of the Concords," What We Do in the Shadows) plays divorced graphic novelist and art teacher Will Henry, who wants to play a much larger part in his young daughters' lives and ends up caring for them a great deal more while trying to maintain his workload and barely existent social life.

It's really nice to not only see Clement take on a lead role in any film, but especially in one with some substance, requiring actual emotional commitment. Will finds himself befriending a student named Kat ("The Daily Show's" Jessica Williams), who sets the teacher up with her single mom Diane (Regina Hall), a literature professor. The first date is full of wonderfully forced and awkward moments, but this pair seem to hit it off enough to try to continue dating. At about the same time, his ex-wife (Stephanie Allynne) decides she might like to give the marriage another try, despite her being pregnant with another man's baby and being engaged to said homewrecking other man, forcing Will to make a decision and see how committed he is to the two women in his life.

People Places Things has a charm that stems primarily from Clement playing a version of himself — a New Zealander living in Brooklyn, wanting to desperately to be the hip dad while getting a certain amount of emotional mileage from playing the jilted ex-husband. The film uses the gimmick of Will creating a comic book about his life to provide a little extra humor in the form of keenly observed panels about broken hearts and new potential love interests, but a little goes a long way in this fairly thin story populated by terrific actors. For Clement admirers, this one rates seeing certainly, but for those who have been through a painful split and feel like the worst is past them, the film may serve as a cathartic experience if they see some of themselves in these characters. The film opens today in Chicago for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Fort Tilden

If there were an award for the most annoying characters that I'm still glad I got to spend time with, the clear cut winner this year would have to be Harper (Bridey Elliott) and Allie (Clare McNulty), the Brooklyn-based Millennial lead characters of Fort Tilden who spend most of a day avoiding all responsibilities to trek across their fair borough to spend time at the beach with a couple of young men they met at a party the night before. Allie is on the verge of leaving town for two years to join the Peace Corps in one of the scariest part of Africa, while Harper — a self-proclaimed artist — is making one of her regular calls to her rich, absentee father for a cash infusion. She's contributing nothing to society, and she couldn't care less.

Fort Tilden is about two women who have no filter, which doesn't mean they're vulgar or otherwise overtly offensive; it means that once a thought enters their brain, it immediately comes out of their mouths. Observation, opinions, and above all judgements spew forth, revealing vapid, empty people longing for some kind of depth and meaning in their lives without a thought about anyone but themselves. Hell, they barely care about each other, as it becomes clear they both have eyes on the same guy, and a passive-aggressive battle of the wills that lasts the entire journey ensues. Allie never really seems committed to the whole Peace Corps thing, as she avoids the phone calls of the woman organizing her trip. Harper is even worse, using words to describe her art and artistic process, but never really committing to their meaning. If these two were not in a movie together, I wouldn't have the slightest urge to meet them.

And yet... and yet... there is something undeniably fascinating about watching these two creations walk their world, scared of the ghettos they must pass through, blissfully unaware of their worthlessness. At one point, Allie borrows a neighbor's bike for the trip to Fort Tilden, and when she grows tired of being responsible for it, she simply stashes it among a pile of garbage, hoping it won't get stolen, with no intention of retrieving it later. When she apologizes for effectively stealing the bike, she offers the poor sap no promise of going back for his bike or even giving a shit that it's gone. She's not mean about; worse, she's apathetic. These are two characters you're almost guaranteed to dislike, but that somehow makes them inexplicably watchable. Directed by Sarah-Violet Bliss (who contributed a portion to the anthology film The Color of Time) and Charles Rogers (his first feature), Fort Tilden makes you laugh squarely at this pair, who sadly are made to be in each other's company, and maybe that's for the best because it means they won't be in mine ever. I'm not a fan of deliberately "hate watching" anything, but that's the feeling I got watching this movie — I somehow received pleasure from disliking these characters. If that was the mission of the filmmakers, congratulations... I guess. The film opens in the Chicago area today at the AMC South Barrington 30.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet

Beginning when I was in college, I fed myself a steady diet of the works of Kahlil Gibran's poetic writings, chief among them The Prophet, filled with stories that provide life lessons in nearly every aspect of spiritually pure living (hey, I'm not saying I took these lessons to heart, but they're great stories from an exemplary writer). From these simple stories, an impressive animated film has arrived courtesy of a handful of esteemed artists and producer Selma Hayek. Written and directed by Roger Allers (The Lion King), Kahlil Gibran's The Prophettells the primary story housekeeper Kamila (voiced by Hayek) and her daughter Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis) who make regular visits to the home of artist/poet Mustafa (Liam Neeson), who is under house arrest for his radical ideas that the powers that be fear will cause a revolution. He's about to be released, but there's a sense that this is almost too good to be true.

As Mustafa's final day of exile is drawing to a close, he offers Almitra various stories on all manner of topics, with each story being being brought to animated life by the likes Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells), Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues), Bill Plympton (Cheatin'), and Joann Sfar (The Rabbi's Cat). The film also has a soaring score from Gabriel Yared and features songs and additional music from the likes of Glen Hansard, Damien Rice and Yo-Yo Ma. Rounding out the voice cast with actors like John Krasinski, Frank Langella and Alfred Molina, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophetis a work of sublime substance and artistic value, with glossing over the painful fact that the world can be a supremely unjust place, even for the most righteous.

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophetis a mature story but one I think most younger audiences will appreciate. It's a vibrant work that works best when it sticks to the parables (eight of the book's 26 are offered here) and leans less on the story's more overt political overtones. The stories on life, death, children, marriage, even eating and everything in between are the true meat of this film and the sections that most closely follow the book. At a brisk under-90-minute running time, things move along without lingering too much on the lesser framing story. It's an elegant, heartfelt work that is certainly different than even the finest animated works in theaters now. If you're looking for something edgier and off the beaten path, consider it. The film opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Cop Car

Watching director Jon Watts's (Clown) Cop Car was one of those rare instances of seeing a film and having no idea going in what it was about beyond the title and that it starred Kevin Bacon with a porn star mustache. No matter how many films I see in a given year, I still get a special thrill about sitting down to watch a movie and realizing just as the lights go down that I haven't had a single second of it previewed or otherwise ruined for me. It happens so infrequently, I should celebrate. It doesn't always mean the film is good, obviously, but it reminds me of a time in my life when I fell in love with movies, when the most I might have access to before going in to see a film was the poster and a single trailer.

That being said, Cop Car is solid no matter how much you know about it going in. Unveiling itself in an almost stream-of-consciousness manner, the film shows us two 10-year-old boys in the early steps of running away from home, when they stumble upon an abandoned sheriff's cruiser in a tucked away corner of a field. Upon further investigation, they discover that one of the doors in unlocked and the keys are still in the vehicle, meaning finders keepers, so they combine their knowledge of how to drive a car, and off they go.

The film jumps back to just a few minutes before the kids find the car, to when Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) pulled into that secluded spot, pulled a body out of the car (leaving one more in the trunk) and dragging it to a place where he can dispose of it. When he gets back, the car is gone, and he must find the vehicle without tipping off his fellow officers that it's missing, lest a co-worker discovers it ahead of him and pokes around in the trunk.

What follows flows so smoothly, it's like it was destined to happen — a type of controlled, unpredictable chaos that someone feel inevitable and tightly controlled. And these two kids are at the center of gunplay, double crossing, blood (dried and fresh), and a bad cop who just wants his car back, and who's willing to promise anything to get it. Bacon is playing an absolute representative of bad news and he does it beautifully. The tension starts out present but barely registering, and once Bacon is introduced, it builds into a dark, sticky mess.

Also on hand are the great Camryn Manheim, playing a nosy neighbor whose busy-body ways come back to haunt her, and Shea Whigham as the man in the trunk, not dead but covered in blood, the result of somehow crossing the Sheriff. One of the greatest things about Cop Car is what we don't know. We don't know the details of how Whigham got in that trunk. We don't know if the boy's parents are even aware if they're missing. And we don't know if Kretzer's promise to let the boys go once he gets his car back is true. Because none of that really matters. If we knew any of those things, the film wouldn't be nearly as interesting.

Director Watts (who co-wrote the film with Christopher D. Ford) was recently announced as the director of the Marvel reboot of Spider-Man, and I have no idea if the reasons Cop Car is so good will translate into a teenage superhero movie or not, but I'm willing to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. He takes a simple premise and twists it into something with a capacity for pain and retribution. It's a real talent, and I'm hoping his real gift for creating the maximum drama out of so little information isn't wasted in what he's up to next. The film opens in the Chicago area today at the AMC South Barrington 30.

Prince

If you're a admirer of the website or HBO news magazine series "Vice," then you likely won't be surprised to see that they had a hand in getting the new film Prince released this week. The Vice staff are committed to covering news and showing parts of the world that the major networks and other new organizations won't touch. They go deep, get ugly and quite often put their correspondents face to face with people Americans perceive as the enemy. Prince actually only grazes the evil part, but that doesn't make it any less of a energetic curiosity, and it feels about as real a story about a the kids at the center of it as you're likely to see this year.

Prince throws a spotlight on teenager Ayoub (Ayoub Elsari), living in the projects of Amsterdam, who, like his three best friends dream big about the lives they would live with money. They fancy themselves little gangstas, but they're mostly just hormone-charged virgins without a clue about the real world. Ayoub is bullied and humiliated by an older kid for talking to the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, who happens to be the older kid's girlfriend, and this drives him to align himself with the local drug kingpin and insane person Kalpa (Dutch rapper Freddy Tratlehner — imagine Alfred Molina from Boogie Nights, but actually dangerous), who takes a liking to the youngster and uses him for a job, which naturally leads to bigger and more life-threatening situations.

Not to make it seem like a complete downer, Prince is actually humorous and lovely at moments; it's fueled by a kinetic visual sense and a driving synth score that wears its love of '80s action films on its sleeve. The film also succeeds as a family drama, with Ayoub doing what he can to protect and support his struggling single mother, his junkie father, and his coming-of-age sister, who makes the mistake of falling for one of Ayoub's best friends. Much of the drama in the kid's life is self-inflicted and -generated, but he truly cares about those closest to him, even if he sometimes sees the need to punch them in the face.

Prince comes courtesy of first-time feature writer-director Sam de Jong, who is never satisfied with his film being just one thing or possessing just one tone. He's as passionate about it working as a love story as much as he sees it as a crime drama and story of a desperate family. The scenes featuring Kalpa as terrifying and strange, while the moments between Ayoub as his homeless father will cause a great pain in your heart. There's also the added bonus of Ayoub being half Moroccan, which earns him extra prejudice from those who torment him in the neighborhood. The film is a modest effort with goals as big as the movies allow it to be, not unlike the filmmaker's lead character. A work worthy of its royal title, Prince uses familiar teenage tropes to tell a very different type of story, and it does so with guts and compassion. How many films in theaters right now can say the same? 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.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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About A/C

A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
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Editor: Nancy Bishop, nancy@gapersblock.com
A/C staff inbox: ac@gapersblock.com

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