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Column Fri Aug 28 2015

We Are Your Friends, No Escape, Grandma, Listen to Me Marlon, Learning to Drive, Turbo Kid & She's Funny That Way

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We Are Your Friends

Earlier this summer, a French film called Eden was released that explored the DJ culture of the times in a fascinating and heartfelt way that was less about spinning records and more about establishing interesting characters whose lives and fates we actually grew to care about. And while it's usually fairly easy for me to shut out all other films while I'm watching a new one, as I was viewing the rather stale We Are Your Friends, my mind kept taking me back to the far more interesting Eden. I guess context matters sometimes.

Where We Are Your Friends fares better is in painting a portrait of "the Valley," or San Fernando Valley, located on the other side of the Hollywood Hills. There's a culture there that seems ripe for exploration and first-time director Max Joseph (who co-wrote with Meaghan Oppenheimer) does a credible job of walking us through this slight obtuse place, as seen through the eyes of would-be DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron), who has enough raw talent to make it big; whether he's willing to do what he has to do to succeed — including sell out for big money — is another question. The film also does a solid job explaining how much actual composition (via computer) goes into a DJ's track. It's no longer about mixing with two turntables; it's about creating something new out of something old to the point where you don't recognize the elements and only hear the new music.

Last year, I caught the informative documentary Under the Electric Sky, which opened my eyes a bit to the world that surrounds electronic dance music (EDM) via one of the genre's biggest festivals, Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas (an event that is featured in We Are Your Friends). The loss of interest in the music is personified by Cole's mentor James (Wes Bentley), an alcoholic superstar DJ who takes Cole under his wing and gives him access to his studio, but encourages him to use real instruments, sounds of nature, and real elements in his music rather than just samples and familiar beats. As in many of his films of late, Bentley quietly steals every scene he's in by just being intense and brooding, and it's been great rediscovering him in the last few years

James trusting Cole also leads to Cole falling for the DJ's assistant/pseudo-girlfriend Sophie (supermodel Emily Ratajkowski from Gone Girl and Entourage). Shockingly, the two have a bit of a dalliance, and James isn't happy about it. The film doesn't score many points for originality or unpredictability, especially in scenes involving Cole hanging with his dude-bro Valley friends, who would rather pick a fight about the best sushi place in the area than act like human beings so that their friend's career isn't put at risk. There's also a weird, distracting subplot about the dude-bros getting jobs at a shady real-estate operation run by Paige (Jon Bernthal). There's a life lesson buried in those scenes, I believe, but mostly it just gives Bernthal a chance to play an asshole.

After tragedy hits his life, Cole realizes that he has to make some fairly basic decisions about his future, his music career, and who his friends will be moving forward — decisions that we've essentially made for him at a much earlier point in the story. Efron is a strong enough actor to pull off some of Cole's mental anguish, but there is nothing in the writing that leads us to believe that these are truly tough choices. Ratajkowski is certainly nice to look at, but she finds plenty of moments when she doesn't rely on her looks to carry the scene as well, and she establishes herself well in her first leading role. But too often, We Are Your Friends feels like an empty film about empty people wanting to be people of substance. It's a worthy goal, but it's uninspiring to watch play out.

No Escape

The directing/writing/producing team of brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle specialize in horror films, the best of which was their [Rec] remake Quarantine, but which sadly includes such forgettables as As Above, So Below, Devil and a leading candidate for the least effective found-footage film ever made, The Poughkeepsie Tapes. Their latest work, No Escape, might seem like a change of pace, but after you view it, you'll quickly realize that the only difference between the type of horror the Dowdles dealt in before and this one is the presence of supernatural creatures. In fact, No Escape might be the scariest film they've ever made because it's based squarely in the real world.

That being said, I watching No Escape in a free-floating state of discomfort because of its set up. A white American family uproots itself from Austin to an unspecified nation in Southeast Asia (the film was shot in Thailand, but it's established that the country in question borders Vietnam, which would make it Cambodia or Laos), where father/husband Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) has gotten a job for a Western corporation deepening its roots in the region. Almost as soon as the family — which includes wife Annie (Lake Bell) and young daughters Beeze (Claire Geare) and Lucy (Sterling Jerins) — gets to the hotel where they're staying, all hell breaks loose in the form of a violent, decidedly anti-American coup, where any American is shot on site. Jack gathers his terrified family, and they spend the rest of the film attempting to run and hide from these revolutionaries trying to stop corporations from stealing and controlling their natural resources.

As much as I believe the Dowdles have attempted not to demonize the residents of this entire anonymous country, there's pretty much no avoiding it. Nearly every Asian face in this movie goes nameless and is out to murder the Dwyers. If the goal of No Escape was to make as as scared to go to Southeast Asia as Jaws made us afraid to go in the water, I'm sure that's what the upshot will be. The film works from the idea that it can sometimes be scary being in a foreign country, where no one around you speaks your language, signs and maps don't make sense, and the entire population wants to string you up. It happens.

Putting aside the xenophobia for the time being, No Escape works best as an above-average action film, with its saving grace being Pierce Brosnan's Hammond, a corporate spy and general mess of a man who manages to lead the Dwyers through the winding streets of a city with no name, aiming them as best he can toward a border crossing where they will be safe. He's the only character in the film who seems about as fed up with the whole situation as I'm sure many of you will be when the film is over.

The sequence that will undoubtedly generate the most attention is actually the culmination of the best scene in the film. After a long stand on the roof their hotel with other guests, the masked bad guys somehow make it up there and kill nearly everyone. The Dwyers get to the edge of the build where they decide to jump to the roof of another building several stories below. As adults, Annie and Jack are barely going to make this jump. But with two kids? Forget it. So they literally fling their children across the gap between buildings. I'm not going to lie: it's damn thrilling stuff. And as much as some audience members might be shocked by this sequence, the only alternative for the family was to not do it and allow the entire family to get mowed down. You have to give the Dowdles a little credit for trying something new, something that appears profoundly unsafe.

Wilson and Bell have a certain relatable, easy-going chemistry as a couple who are still in the early stages of dealing with this upheaval in their lives. We don't get a sense that this is a shaky marriage; still, they have been shaken by Jack losing his job and the family leaving their lives behind for a shady new job halfway around the world. I wouldn't go so far as to describe No Escape as a family drama couched in an action movie, but I think those were the aspirations.

Wilson hasn't gone this hardcore action in about 15 years, since Behind Enemy Lines. But in that film, he played a character with self-defense and weapons training. Another unusual quality of No Escape is just how sloppy and unprofessional the Dwyers are in evading and defending against attackers, as they would be. They're tripping over objects in the jungle, they have no skills at avoiding their would-be killers, and the children sometimes simply refuse to cooperate because they're tired, scared and hungry. And few things made me recoil from a film more than annoying child characters.

If you can avoid being culturally offended by the portrayal of the bloodthirsty, faceless Asian mobs at play here, you can probably find things about No Escape to appreciate. The action set pieces are staged quite nicely. And Bell, certainly more than Wilson, shows a ferocious protective quality when her children are threatened. It's a side to her acting talents I don't believe I've seen before, and she absolutely pulls it off.

No Escape doesn't attempt to hide its political agenda about the perils of American involvement in any developing nation, thanks in large part to Exposition Jones (aka Brosnan). But that isn't really the point of this film. The mission is to get the blood moving, and that mission is accomplished. Anything beyond that makes the film a tough sell and nearly impossible to fully recommend.

Grandma

Writer-director Paul Weitz's (About a Boy, American Pie) latest, Grandma, is a deceptively simple story about a complicated woman. The film opens engagingly with a lovers' spat that turns into an ugly breakup between Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) and her girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), where hurtful insults are flung by Elle in an effort to make this kind woman stop loving her. Slowly over the course of the film, small elements of Elle's life are revealed, not through clumsy exposition, but from confrontations much like the one in the opening. But Elle comes by her anger honestly.

Not long after this awful screaming match, Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner of Martha, Marcy May Marlene; We Are What We Are) arrives at her door in a mild panic. She's pregnant, and her no-good boyfriend has bailed on giving her money for an abortion, which she is scheduled to have at the end of the same day. As a result, the girl needs money, which her grandmother is fresh out of, having recently paid off all her credit card debt with her last dollar and subsequently cut up the cards and turned them into wind chimes. So the bulk of the film is watching this odd couple drive from old friend to old friend in search of cash, but in the process, we get a tour of Elle's sordid, sometimes painful past.

Elle's life tribulations are many, but she also seems to come by her bitterness organically. Her long-time partner died not long ago, and as we learn through the course of this mini-road trip, she has people in her life that she counts on as friends, adversaries and both. There are some fun moments with characters played by Nat Wolff (as Sage's ne'er do well asshole of a boyfriend), Laverne Cox and the late, great Elizabeth Peña, and during each exchange we learn a little bit more about Elle's life and abrasive, sometimes explosive personality. Eventually, the pair run out of options and must go to Elle's estranged daughter (Sage's mom) Judy, played by Marcia Gay Harden, a stern, successful business woman, who has no idea that her daughter is pregnant until the two are at her office door with hands out.

Perhaps the most emotionally jarring moment of Grandma comes when Elle and Sage show up at the home of the mysterious Karl (Sam Elliott), who has an ancient connection with Elle that I won't ruin here, but he's willing to help, until he finds out what the money is for. He's not a stern pro-lifer, but his reasons make sense. For a film structured around an abortion that may or may not actually happen, Grandma is remarkably non-judgmental about that element of its story. Elle recalls a time when she was much younger and legal abortions were much more difficult to obtain. And while she makes a few jokes at her pregnant granddaughter's expense, her support and protective nature are always in the foreground.

Grandma is a wonderful exercise in the slow character reveal. Weitz assumes that the audiences watching his film have brains, so he doesn't feel the need to spell everything out regarding Elle's inner workings and past, but it's all there in the fabric of the movie, waiting for us to pull at the threads and see what is underneath. It's a pleasure, rather than a burden, to have to work a little to understand Elle, much as it would be if you were making an actual friend who may be a little tough to love sometimes. Thankfully, Greer's Olivia dips in and out of the story as it progresses, making it much easier for us to see what is in Elle that is worth holding onto and caring about. The film is a testament to family, and it may even inspire you to take stock in your own damaged relationships and consider whether they are beyond saving. It's a remarkable little film about some deeply powerful emotions and souls. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Listen to Me Marlon

With no additional narration or interviews and only a single title card at the beginning of the film explaining that the late actor Marlon Brando left behind hundreds of hours of taped commentary that he recorded throughout his life, the documentary Listen to Me Marlon relies entirely on Brando's own words to tell his complicated story of being a devastatingly handsome matinee idol, activist, father and one of the most enigmatic celebrities in history. Directed by documentarian Stevan Riley, the resulting film feels like a tour of Brando's life in pictures, combined with the monologue going through his head while he was experiencing these events. At times, it resembles a therapy session or confession.

The movie feels comprehensive, moving from Brando's childhood and distanced relationships with his brutish father and alcoholic mother, to his early years as a stage actor, scoring his big break with the Broadway run of A Streetcar Named Desire, followed by the film version. He walks us through acting classes with Stella Adler, teaching him Method acting (these moments are supplemented with archival interviews with Adler on various talk shows of the time). It's clear that she saw something special in him, and he adored the mothering attention she gave him when his own mother was essentially useless in his life.

The tapes also reveal Brando's habits — he was a fan of self-hypnosis in an effort to decompress, and, later in life, to lose weight. The tapes reveal a man who grew tired of the commerce of the movie-making industry (which came to a head while shooting 1962's Mutiny on the Bounty), and before long Brando was labelled a "difficult" actor to work with. He turned his attention to the Civil Rights movement and later Native American rights, and he was more than happy to march, protest and otherwise lend his name and voice to these causes, no matter the impact on his career.

Naturally the film covers the greatest hits package, including Guys and Dolls, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Last Tango in Paris, Superman and more. The insight into Brando's opinions on these works is endlessly fascinating and sometimes quite amusing. Perhaps the most eerie aspect to hearing Brando's voice again is that the filmmakers also have access to digital facial scans the actor did in the later part of his life. By scanning his face in different, pre-determined expressions, we're able to see a facsimile of Brando's face saying the recorded words. It's not exactly lifelike, but it adds something of substance to the tapes that I would not have anticipated.

Listen to Me Marlon is also a tragic account of Brando's children, two of whom died while he was alive, and one was sent to prison for killing his sister's supposedly abusive boyfriend. The court case that followed forced Brando to come out of the shadows of his secluded life and into the spotlight in ways that were humiliating and painful; in his testimony, he often blamed himself for the killing because he wasn't a good father. The documentary pulls back a bit of the mystery surrounding Brando and does so respectfully, with just the right amount of aggrandizing. The filmmakers take a brief moment to celebrate some of Brando's less-wise role choices in films, but nothing about it feels exploitative. It's a unique perspective — sometimes feeling as if we're hearing things we ought not — on someone of great acting stature, and it seems fitting that Brando gets the last word on every aspect of his life through this film. The movie opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Learning to Drive

This small film from director Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me) is anchored by two gifted performers playing New Yorkers whose lives would likely never have crossed were it not for the fact that both needed help from the other at this exact moment. In Learning to Drive, Ben Kingsley plays Darwan, a Sikh Indian and former university professor who fled his country decades earlier to America, where he is now a cab driver and patient driving instructor. While assuming his cabbie guise, he meets Wendy (Patricia Clarkson), whose long-time husband is actively in the process of breaking up with her for a younger woman.

Since her husband drove everywhere, she never learned to do so, and she asks Darwan for lessons so that she can visit her grown daughter Tasha (Grace Gummer) at a collective farm where she lives and works. She is genuinely petrified of driving, so Darwan must first free her of her anxiety and help her stay focused and observant so she can drive out all other distractions. She's a terrible student, but he's a brilliant instructor, and over the course of their lessons, they two find a kind of serenity.

In a lesser, more sentimental work, Darwan and Wendy would have introduced the other to their individual cultures and lives, but this relationship isn't about that. Their friendship exists because they lead separate lives that meet in this one location for this one purpose. When they accidentally, momentarily slip into each other's worlds, anxiety sets in. Darwan's largest concern is that his arranged-marriage wife is due to arrive, and he has no idea how to talk to a woman, so he makes the earth-shattering decision to ask his new friend — the personification of the modern, New York sophisticate — what he can do to impress his soon-to-be wife (Sarita Choudhury).

Clarkson and Kingsley (who worked together before with director Coixet in Elegy) are two of the finest working actors around. They make it look easy, when it's clear that striking this balance between drama and the occasional humorous moments is crucial to the success of the film. Both of these characters have had to restart their lives under very different conditions, but the end result is surprisingly similar — emotional trauma, upheaval, and reinventing themselves under these new circumstances. Theirs are remarkably tragic stories, couched in a hopeful, uplifting work (written by Sarah Kernochan) that offers us a chance to see what tremendous actors can do with an already worthy script. Film fans should note that Martin Scorsese's long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker cut this film as well, and the results in a couple of key moments are undeniable. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Turbo Kid

Right off the bat, you know there's something special about the odd little, hyper-violent, sci-fi adventure film Turbo Kid, when a title card informs us that the post-apocalyptic world in which it's set is 1997. Without as much as a single wink to the audience, the film plays like a long-lost, recently unearthed work from the 1980s — one of those movies that was too violent for kids, but that wouldn't stop under-17ers from sneaking in in droves, likely after buying a ticket to something their parents would approve of... not that I would know anything about that.

The hero of this "futuristic" tale is The Kid (Munro Chambers), a loner who lives on the blasted-out wasteland, collecting junk that he can trade for water and issues of comic books of his favorite adventurer Turbo Rider, who, like himself, pedals an old-school BMX bike like he was born to it. After one particularly harrowing day, he discovers a strange young woman named Apple (Laurence Leboeuf) talking to a long-dead corpse, who she said was once her traveling companion, and now she would like the Kid to be her new buddy. She slaps a tracking device on his wrist that can't be removed, and these two become largely inseparable. Apple is a perpetually happy, smiling, pink-haired sprite whose alarmingly positive outlook on things and playful spirit seem sadly out of place in this environment, but she still manages to brighten the day and save the Kid from constant loneliness, for a time.

Adding substantially to the film's '80s vibe is the appearance of Michael Ironside as the evil Zeus, whose costume appears to have be pieced together from a shopping trip through a scrap metal dealer. His right-hand man (equipped with a buzzsaw on said hand that sometimes shoots its saw out into people's chests) is named Skeletron, and if any of this is sounding remarkably like a certain Fury Road-set actioner from a couple months ago, I'm fairly certain that's deliberate, even though this film was made long before that one was released. Zeus kidnaps Apple, and while searching for her, the Kid stumbles upon an abandoned craft that appears to include the dead body of the actual, in-costume Turbo Rider (so, I'm guessing the comic books were more of an illustrated biography?) The Kid peals off the costume (which includes a highly destructive, turbocharged armband) and sets off to find his friend.

Turbo Kid also has something of a Western element to it thanks to the character of Frederic (Aaron Jeffrey), who has had people close to him killed by Zeus and his band of thugs. Naturally, Frederic and the Kid run into each other to do battle with Zeus in a series of explosively bloody and hilarious exchanges. For a film that mimics stories that are light on plot and character development and heavy on gore and stunts, Turbo Kid finds ways to unleash a few surprises along the way about all of its main characters. Written and directed by the collective of François Simard, Anouk Whissell and Yoann-Karl Whissell, the movie uses copious amounts of charm and humor to win us over, even if the humor is a bit too broad at times.

Turbo Kid works best as an exercise in style, using nostalgia as its foundation, but never relying on it as its only means of becoming a total crowd pleaser. Even when I was young, I recognized these lower-budget sci-fi entires for what they were: films piggybacking off the more successful films of the time (the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones and Mad Max movies). Most of them were appallingly bad works, but sometimes they'd have one or two original ideas that made them stand out from the pack.

Turbo Kid feels like a collection of those cool moments, and as a result, it's a highly watchable, absolutely entertaining piece that gets a lot of mileage out of that mountain bike. My strongest recommendation is to see the film with a crowd; I can't imagine this being as much fun to watch sitting home alone. You can actually feel the energy in the room surge when a guy's guts get pulled out of him via the gears of a bike. You've been encouraged/warned. The film opens today at Chicago Filmmakers for screenings on Friday, Aug. 28 at 8pm, Saturday, Aug. 29 at 8pm; Sunday, Sunday 30 at 7pm.

She's Funny That Way

Owen Wilson is having a really rough time at the movies these days. No Escape is decidedly rough around the edges; the new Jared Hess film Masterminds (in which Wilson stars) has had its release date postponed indefinitely due to the distributor having major financial issues; and the long-delayed and retitled She's Funny That Way from director/co-writer Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, The Cat's Meow) is a sloppy, unfunny mess. Zoolander 2 cannot get here fast enough. I'll put it to you this way: if all you care about is seeing one famous face after another parade across the screen, you'll be in your own private version of heaven. Otherwise, you're in for a world of hurt.

Set in the world of the New York theater scene, She's Funny That Way concerns prostitute-turned-actress Isabella Finkelstein (hooker name: Glow-stick, because that's sexy), played by the usually reliable Imogen Poots, sporting a Brooklyn accent that practically smothers her. While in New York to cast his new play, married director Arnold Albertson (Wilson) is staying in a hotel alone, so he does what any self-respecting, virile male would do and hires a call girl — Glow — for the one night he's away from his actress wife (Kathryn Hahn). As a parting gift to his favorite hooker, he gives her $30,000 to get her life on track so she can pursue her acting dreams. Plus she gets an inspirational pep talk from Arnold that sets her on a path to a better life.

It doesn't take us long to discover that Arnold has done this before, but he's some sort of magic man, since every former prostitute he's helped out in this way has gone on to bigger and better things. Not surprisingly, since there are apparently only about a dozen residents of this version of New York City, Isabella's first post-Arnold audition is for his play, written by the great Joshua Fleet (Will Forte) who just happens to be dating angry psycho-analyst Jane (Jennifer Aniston), who hates every one of her patients, especially an elderly judge (Austin Pendleton) suffering from a destructive obsession with, you guessed it, Isabella. Seriously, there is one shrink and one hooker in the whole city.

Does that cover all of the celebrities with roles or cameos in She's Funny That Way? Not even close. But hopefully you get a sense that this film feels like free-for-all, tossing in famous faces in hopes that someone will be funny or at least interesting. The screenplay (from the director and Louise Stratten) isn't so much a story, as it is a series of coincidences, and it's easy to lose interest in a hurry. I spent most of my time watching this saying to myself, "Hey, there's Michael Shannon as a Macy's security guard," or "Hey, Cybil Shepherd [as Isabella's mother] was in The Last Picture Show," or "Christ, Richard Lewis looks like hell," or "I've really missed Illeana Douglas as a character actor," or "Quentin Tarantino is in this thing?"

Bogdanovich has made himself available to younger filmmakers for advice and mentoring over the years for such folks as Tarantino, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson (the latter two are listed as producers on the film), but perhaps it's Bogdanovich who should have sought advice from his younger counterparts. It's not that the film feels old-fashioned (his previous film, The Cat's Meow, certainly did, and it's wonderful), but it does feel agonizingly out of touch with anything resembling humor or timing or whimsy. Poots won me over with her sincerity as Isabella, but she tends to have that effect on me, and the fact that nothing else about the film appealed to me or felt remotely realistic makes me think I'm probably making excuses for her being in this in the first place. She's Funny That Way is a genuinely unbearable. Still, if you're an Owen Wilson (or more likely a Tarantino) completist, you better get your tickets now. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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

By Nancy Bishop

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

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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