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Column Fri Aug 21 2015

Sinister 2, American Ultra, Hitman: Agent 47, Mistress America, Digging for Fire, Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World


Sinister 2

While most horror film sequels are content to pick up the remains of the previous film and give audiences the laziest rehash of what we've seen and jumped at before, I'll give the makers of Sinister 2 points for at least taking us in an entirely new direction with its chronicle of the further demonic adventures of Bhughul, who terrorizes entire families via old home movies. It's a variation on the found footage theme, in which the characters in the film are the ones watching the found footage, and it's literally leading most of them to their death.

Once again working from a script from Sinister director Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, Sinister 2 is directed by relative newcomer Ciarán Foy, whose 2012 Citadel is easily one of the creepiest, most anxiety-inducing films of that year (the same year of Sinister, I should add).

Perhaps without meaning to, Foy seems to specialize in movies about creepy children, and in the case of this sequel, there are a great number of kids to make us afraid. More on that in a second.

Sinister 2's focus is on the Collins family--mother Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) and twin sons Dylan and Zach (played by real-life brothers Robert Daniel and Dartanian Sloan), who secretly move into a small farmhouse in downstate Illinois in an effort to hide from her abusive husband.

In a parallel storyline, the sole returning character from Sinister--James Ransone's Deputy (or Ex-Deputy) So & So--is now a private detective who investigates the death of the Oswalt family from the first film, deciding that the killings are tied to the properties they lived on. He sets out to burn down the homes where these killings took place, and when he arrives where the Collins family is, he decides to make friends and see what happens while he stays on the property.

In the meantime, a small group of dead children has decided to haunt one of the two young brothers, not so much to scare him, but to tempt him into the basement to watch several of the Bhughul kill films, many of them featuring these very children. But the question is, are these kids the victims or co-conspirators with this evil force. We're led to believe that if the living boy watches all of the films, Bhughul's power will somehow be at its peak, and a new film will commence with this family. I should mentioned that the creativity on display with these new kill films should make horror fans particularly happy, especially one set in a barn on the property where the Collins family lives.

The true stars of Sinister 2 are the children--both living and dead--and a great deal of credit goes to young Lucas Jade Zumann as the lead ghost Milo, who dresses like a young Amish lad and does a tremendous job alternating between calming and terrifying. When the other brother feels like he's being left out of something cool, he takes steps to befriend these ghosts as well, with disastrous results. I was especially impressed with the way the film leaves Courtney completely in the dark for most of the film that anything supernatural is happening at all in her home. She's far too pre-occupied (as she should be) with protecting her children from another demon in the form of her possessive and vindictive husband.

Ransone continues his strong work from the first film, blending an intense protective quality with a levity and charm that is hard to define but easy to see. He gets to take on Bhughul more directly this time out and spends a great deal of the film spotting the demon out of the corner of his eye, in reflections, or dipping in and out of the darkness of a room. The cumulative effect is fairly nerve-wracking, and he plays it like someone who knows he's being messed with by the dark forces he's chosen to take on. The film manages to give us a glimpse into Bhughul's history without boring us with a full-on backstory, and thank god for that; nothing is less scary than a history lesson about a supernatural killer.

Although Sinister 2 takes a different route to get us there, the film is still pretty solid and certainly has plenty of scares. I'll admit, I miss Ethan Hawke's acting chops here. There's nothing inherently wrong with Sossamon's performance, but having her be somewhat distanced from the scary stuff makes her character less than crucial. Whether you think the film succeeds or fails is likely going to hinge on your response to the child actors, who I thought were terrific. I hope that if the filmmakers take another crack at this franchise, they continue to change up the structure and give us something new to make sure we (or they) never quite find a comfort zone.

To read about my visit to the Chicago set of Sinister 2, which includes cast and crew interviews, go to Ain't It Cool News.

American Ultra

Two folks best known for non-horror, found-footage films have come together to make a (non-found-footage) action-comedy that turns out to be a real hoot. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle) deliver upon us American Ultra, a very funny take on the "programmed" government agent storyline, in which dedicated West Virginia stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) suddenly finds himself possessing special abilities that are unknown even to him until they kick in instinctually after years of doing nothing but work in a convenience store and living with his patient girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

When the powers that be at the CIA who originally put Mike through the Ultra program decide that he's too dangerous to be left to live, new Agency top dog Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) order Mike to be put down like a rapid dog. The agent who supervised Mike, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) doesn't agree with the decision, and she makes contact with Mike to activate him using code words that don't seem to work because smoking an amazing amount of pot over the years has fried his synapses. But when he's attacked, it turns out that his training as an agent kick in without him understanding why, and he ends up making short work of two assassins, using only a cup of instant soup and a spoon. Even Mike is amazed and horrified at what he's done and how much information has suddenly flooded into his brain, despite him having no knowledge of learning any of it.

A big part of the reason American Ultra succeeds is a stellar supporting cast, including John Leguizamo as Mike's uber-paranoid criminal friend Rose, whom he goes to for protection when he feels the entire CIA is out to kill him; Walton Goggins as a demented assassin named Laugher, who has a final-scene reveal that is so out of left field that I was legitimately stunned at the turn; Tony Hale as Victoria's only loyal friend inside the Agency; and the always-welcome Bill Pullman as a CIA top brass whose role here I won't expose. The cast is a veritable who's who of actors you can rely on to make a solid, quick impression on audiences and can flesh out any character well beyond what's on the page--and I say that being genuinely impressed with Landis's screenplay.

The bulk of the film is just Mike and Phoebe going from location to location in their small town trying not to get killed, with considerable assistance from Mike's insane fighting abilities. Sometimes Victoria is there to assist; sometimes not. The film's biggest flaw is how broadly Grace's Yates is drawn and acted. I realize there are asshole bosses all over the world, but he never gives any solid justification for wanting Mike so maliciously wiped out, and it hurts the film just a little.

Then there's this sweet little love story tucked away in the middle of American Ultra. Mike has an engagement ring he wants to find the right time to give Phoebe, and he keeps pulling it out of his pocket at all the wrong times only to be thwarted before she realizes what's happening. Stewart is especially good here as the slightly more responsible, supportive girlfriend that Mike knows he's lucky to have in his life. And if she seems to you to be almost too good to be true, you should hold onto that instinct. Stewart and Eisenberg had such strong chemistry in 2009's Adventureland, and it has only grown exponentially since then. He's a slightly lost, damaged bear cub drawing his comic book characters and dealing with anxiety; she's mama bear keeping the harsh world at bay. Sounds silly, I know, but it's really sweet.

I should also mention that American Ultra is insanely violent, and that's not a criticism--just a warning. Head shots are like the film's second language, and there are all types of creative, skillful, efficient, and nasty ways that people get taken out. Some of these methods are extremely funny, while others are just about shooting as much blood across the screen as possible. If you're into that sort of thing (which I am), you'll be in a certain type of heaven. I thought this movie was great. It's a perfect blend of funny and hard-hitting action, with some great actors on point, all of which should make genre fans quite giddy.

Hitman: Agent 47

The true measure of whether or not a film based on a videogame is good or not isn't whether it resembles its source material or not. The measure is the same as with all films--whether it's good or not. I believe this iteration of Hitman (subtitled Agent 47) is technically a reboot of the 2007 Hitman, starring Timothy Olyphant, but it doesn't really matter. The title character is now played by the utterly bland and seemingly featureless Rupert Friend ("Homeland," Starred Up, Young Victoria) as the nameless, genetically modified (not to mention alarmingly bald) clone, designed to be the perfect killing machine and conditioned to operate without emotion.

The program that created him has been shut down, but he's been commissioned to track down the scientist that birthed it years earlier and is now in hiding, Litvenko (Ciarán Hinds). To find him, Agent 47 must first track down the scientist's daughter, Katia (Hannah Ware from "Shame" and the Spike Lee remake of Old Boy), who has been attempting to track down the scientist for most of her adult life. Zachary Quinto plays "John Smith," a special agent assigned to protect Katia from Agent 47; he convinces her Agent 47 is trying to kill her, but since he's Zachary Quinto, we know he's probably a dirty, lying bad guy outside of the STAR TREK movies. In fact, John Smith is working for a man named Le Clerq (Thomas Kretschmann), head of an organization called Syndicate, who also is after Katia's knowledge on her father's whereabouts so that he can restart the Agent program again.

Hitman: Agent 47 is a film loaded with double and triple crosses, not a great deal of straight-forward communication, and a whole lot of utterly cliche-ridden dialogue lifted from every other action movie ever made in the history of the universe. In fact, the entire film feels like things lifted from other things--like music videos, commercials, film student reels. Not surprisingly, the film is the feature debut of successful commercial director Aleksander Bach, who lovingly frames every Audi vehicle featured like he was making love to it. A big chunk the movie takes place in Singapore, which is made to look so appealing, I almost wondered if the projectionist had slipped in that country's Olympics audition reel. The film is so glossy and polished, you could ice skate across it.

It doesn't take a film history scholar to notice the similarities between this film and Terminator 2--a robot-like man finding just a bit of humanity in him to protect someone who doesn't deserve to die, even though she has been selected as his next target. A seemingly nice guy (Smith) who turns out to be the true villain of the piece. The stilted banter, the heavy weaponry, the Agent's ability to predict where the next threat will come from, as if he's got a computer in his head--it's all here. And the greatest hits just keep on coming.

To say Hitman: Agent 47 is empty doesn't quite cover it; it's aggressively void of a soul. And just because the film features many scenes of sterile white walls that eventually become blood-splattered, it doesn't mean it has a pulse either. It certainly has spared no expense on CG blood spray. There's one sequence involving a full-size (almost oversized) jet engine that actually made me laugh out loud, partially because it offered a spark of creativity, but also it seemed a tad like the film was overcompensating for its impotent script. As a critic and audience member, you can sometimes get a sense of how a disappointing film might have been made better, even good, but I had no such illusions about Agent 47. This one is a dud from start to finish.

Mistress America

"From the team that brought you Frances Ha..." For many of you, the fact that director/co-writer Noah Baumbach and actor/co-writer Greta Gerwig have re-teamed so soon after that highly likable film should be cause for celebration. But there are certainly those among you who can't stand either or both of these artists for reasons I'm not quite clear on. They both have found ways to add a bit of whimsy and intellectual flair to indie films over the last 10 years, and their pairing as collaborators makes a great deal of sense. Their latest work, Mistress America, is a different animal entirely from Frances Ha, despite the set up seeming similar.

Again starting with the premise of a female friendship, the film is seen through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), a New York college freshman who's a bit disappointed in her overall New York experience. When she finds out that her mother is about to get remarried to a man with a daughter just a little older than her, also living in the city, Tracy seeks out her future stepsister Brooke (Gerwig), and the two spend a little time getting crazy together.

Brooke's existence is the personification of stream of consciousness; she talks as fast as she moves; she speaks and acts in non-sequiturs; and whether the wind blows strongest and the loudest noises are coming from, that's where you'll find her. She's got a million ideas, including one for a restaurant that might also be a space for creativity to grow and expand in its customers, and she's almost pulled together the money to start building it. There are few actresses that could pull off Brooke the way Gerwig does, with her innate sense of controlled chaos with a touch of would-be artist who doesn't actually possess any artistic talent. Brooke may infuriate or frustrate some viewers, but I found her unlikely combination of misplaced confidence and complete uncertainty about every aspect of her life rather refreshing. But good luck keeping track of the flow of information that flows from her brain.

Comparatively speaking, Tracy appears to be standing still. Before meeting Brooke, she's struggling to pull together a few paragraphs for a writing class. But after spending time with her spontaneous new friend, she's suddenly inspired with creativity, or something akin to it. In fact what she does is write stories about Brooke, changing very few of the details and casting a great deal of judgment upon her behavior.

In a desperate search for a few thousand more dollars of seed money for her restaurant idea, Brooke seeks help from an old boyfriend, who was (according to her) stolen away by her best friend in a thermonuclear parting of the ways. Tracy and Brooke head to the suburbs to find the couple hoping to guilt them into investing in the business, and once at the house, Mistress America makes a tonal shift into a 1940s slapstick theater piece, with rapid-fire dialogue, long unbroken takes that frame the entire small group in the house in a single shot. And it was in this extended sequence that went from liking the film to really admiring its ambition.

In a sense, Mistress America is a coming-of-age story for both women, but their progression toward maturity isn't about falling in love or getting together with a man. In a sense, men are purely secondary to their lives. Brooke's long-distance significant other is never actually seen and rarely discussed; and the only man that Tracy shows any interest in is a fellow student who she assumes has a crush on her only to discover he's got a new girlfriend. Tracy never wanted to date him, but she seems slightly bothered that he doesn't like her more. Much like Frances Ha, men are not the end-all solution to problems, nor are they significant enough to be the cause of them. They're just other players in these women's lives, and that might be the most substantial element of this work. There are a few bizarre little films floating around right now, but this might be the most interesting. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Mistress America star/co-writer Greta Gerwig and co-star Lola Kirke, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Digging for Fire

Who would have guessed that one of the year's most star-studded ensembles would land in the latest work from writer-director Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies), the Chicago-based filmmaker who returns to his more free-floating roots with Digging for Fire, which he co-wrote with the film's star Jake Johnson ("The New Girl," Jurassic World). Lest you think Swanberg is making a play for full-on mainstream acceptance, his latest is largely plot-free and certainly resolution-free, allowing his enormous cast to work their way through a story about a married couple still getting used to parenthood (Swanberg's son and Happy Christmas star Jude makes an essential cameo), who takes a couple of days off from each other to see what life offers them free of all societal burdens.

Johnson plays Tim, husband to Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), and one night while housesitting for friends, Lee decides she needs to drop their son off with her mother (Judith Light) and stepdad (the ever-present Sam Elliott). It doesn't take long for her to meet the handsome Ben (Orlando Bloom), who helps her against a drunken asshole at a bar. Before long, the flirtatiousness gets fairly overt and borderline inappropriate.

Tim begins the film digging around the yard of the house he's looking after and finds a beaten-up pistol and what he believes is a human bone. After the police blow him off (unless he finds a whole skeleton), he continues to excavate, annoying Lee to the point where she decides to leave. Tim is supposed to be doing their complicated taxes, but not long after Lee is gone, he invites a bunch of friends and barely acquaintances to raid the liquor cabinet and do some more digging. Characters played by the likes of Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, and Brie Larson arrive, and it just becomes a very funny improvisational free for all in terms of both action and dialogue, with Rockwell probably being the most memorable--not surprising in the slightest.

Eventually even more dangerous flirting begins between Tim and Larson's Max, who seems to be the only party guest really curious about the artifacts being dug up on the perimeter of the house (and yes, more suspicious items are uncovered). As with many of Swanberg's more stream-of-consciousness works, he shows a real gift for finding collaborative actors who actually find interesting aspects to their characters and turns them into enjoyable conversation that sometimes borders on insightful. An added bonus to Digging for Fire is that it marks Swanberg's first film ever to be shot in 35mm (especially curious for a filmmaker who a certain style of fast and cheap films shot digitally), once again working with cinematographer Ben Richardson (Swanberg's last two films, as well as Beasts of the Southern Wild).

If you have a hang up about plot, you may be in for a shock. (Swanberg once told me in an interview "Plot is my enemy." He was only half joking.) Digging for Fire is more about experience, characterizations, and finding truth through unscripted conversation. It almost feels like an unexpected bonus that the film has so many laughs on top of that. And a healthy combination of finding a possible murder site and lots of drugs & alcohol open up the flood gates to talk about the things in life that are most meaningful. The talk never feels heavy or burdensome, even though the subject matters are substantial. Above all other things, that might be the trademark of Swanberg's best works. It's also a parable about marriage, compromise and how much truth we really want to know about our significant others. It's about all things; it's about nothing; and if you have an open mind about cinema, you'll see it's about opening up to new experiences--both scary and joyful.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre. Director/co-writer Joe Swanberg & actor/co-writer Jake Johnson will do post-screening Q&As after the 7pm (which I'll be moderating) and 9:30pm showings at the Music Box Theatre on Saturday, August 22. Tickets can be purchased at the Music Box's website.

Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World

For those who only know the dark and foreboding work of Swedish painter and sculptor H.R. Giger (who passed away a little more than a year ago) through his designs he did for the first Alien film, you have a lot to learn, and the new documentary Dark Star: H.R. Giger's World is a pretty exhaustive place to start, chronicling decades of his unique brand of biomechanical landscapes and creatures that were somehow part fleshy, part machine, and all agony.

The art work has become the stuff of iconic posters, album covers, tattoos, and more recently, gallery exhibitions. And while the film attempts to dig into Giger's childhood and personal life to find out where this haunting outlook on the world stems from, it also provides an in-depth look at the small circle of family and long-time friends who assist him in getting through his day-to-day operations. Dark Star covers Giger's years as a fringe artist, leading into his work on Alien, which propelled him the forefront of pop culture success stories, while still struggling to find his place in the art community.

First-time feature filmmaker Belinda Sallin seems to have gotten fairly extraordinary access to Giger, a sweet and largely unassuming man who died shortly after filming ended, following him from convention to museums to the darkest corners of a compact, appropriate decorated home and work space. The film only gives us glimpses of the artist actually at work, using what appears to be an air brush to capture such nightmarish images.

I wish the film had spent just a little time going over Giger's contribution to Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's"Dune" into a film using Giger's production designs--work that was seen by Ridley Scott, who hired Giger for Alien not long after Dune fell through. Perhaps Sallin opted to skip over that project simply because the doc Jodorowsky's Dune covered that aspect of the never-made film so completely. Either way, Dark Star captures the active and moving final years of Giger's life and career quite sublimely, and places him appropriately high in the modern art history pantheon as one of the most recognizable artists of the last 100 years. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque for a limited run from August 21-23; see Facets' website for showtimes.

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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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