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Column Fri Sep 18 2015

Reeling 2015, Everest, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, Black Mass, Pawn Sacrifice, Sleeping with Other People, Coming Home, The Second Mother & More

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Reeling 2015

Reeling, the second-oldest LGBTQ+ film festival in the world and a beloved Chicago cultural institution for more than 30 years, is back with one of its strongest slates of movies in recent memory. A bevy of special guests and events is also part of the schedule. Reeling 2015: The 33rd Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival takes place Sept. 17-24, 2015, and will present nearly 40 features and more than 60 short films from around the world, the majority of them Chicago premieres. The festival returns to the Landmark Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.) for the bulk of the festival. The fest's home base, Chicago Filmmakers (5243 N. Clark St.), will also host screenings. Go to the fest's website for the schedule and tickets.

Among the bigger-name titles Reeling is presenting is Freeheld, director Peter Sollett's (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist) highly anticipated real-life drama about a lesbian police officer (Julianne Moore) fighting to leave her pension to her life partner (Ellen Page) when she is stricken with terminal cancer. Based on Cynthia Wade's 2005 Oscar-winning short film of the same name, Freeheld also stars Academy Award nominees Michael Shannon and Steve Carell, plus Luke Grimes (50 Shades of Gray) and Josh Charles ("The Good Wife"). The film is Moore's follow-up to last year's Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice and was scripted by Oscar nominee (for Philadelphia) Ron Nyswaner.

Director Roland Emmerich, renowned for action blockbusters like 2012, Independence Day and White House Down, is represented in the Reeling festival with his most personal film: Stonewall. Jeremy Irvine (War Horse, The Railway Man) stars as a confused young man, kicked out of his home for being gay, who heads to New York's Greenwich Village in the summer of 1969. Here, he is befriended by a group of fellow outsiders and is eventually caught up in the swirl of events leading up to the Stonewall riots, the historic series of events cited as having kickstarted the gay rights movement in America. Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("The Tudors"), Joey King (White House Down), Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class) and Ron Perlman ("Sons of Anarchy") co-star.

Other highlights of the festival include: Guidance, Canadian writer-director Pat Mills' boisterous black comedy in which he also stars; Natalia Meta's erotic, queer-tinged crime thriller from Argentina, Death in Buenos Aires, starring Academy Award nominee Demian Bichir (A Better Life); Alanté Kavaïté's sensual Lithuanian lesbian love story The Summer of Sangaile; Marco Kreuzpaintner's outrageous German comedy Coming In; Fina Torres' passionate and surprisingly moving Chilean lesbian drama Liz in September; François Ozon's latest, the trans dramedy The New Girlfriend; Joey Kuhn's spot-on portrait of Upper East Side privileged young gay men in the romantic drama Those People; Josh Kim's contemplative Thai drama of brotherly love, How To Win At Checkers (Every Time); Catherine Stewart's rich character study of a South African black lesbian couple's faltering relationship in While You Weren't Looking; Louise Wadley's exciting genre smasher All About E, an Australian road movie/thriller/romance all in one; and William Clift's latest drag queen parody Hush Up Sweet Charlotte, an homage to the Bette Davis-Olivia de Havilland film Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte featuring Mink Stole, Varla Jean Merman and Heklina in its ribald cast; and the world premiere of Kiss Me, Kill Me, the latest from gay film favorite Casper Andreas (Going Down in La-La Land, Violet Tendencies, The Big Gay Musical). A gay twist on the classic LA film noir thriller, this over-the-top and sexy murder mystery features "Queer As Folk's" Gale Harold and "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's" Jai Rodriguez in its cast.

Documentaries are always part of the Reeling lineup, and one of the absolute best you'll see all year is She's The Best Thing In It, the charming biography of Tony Award-winning actress Mary Louise Wilson ("Grey Gardens") from Freeheld and Philadelphia screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, making his directorial debut. The film concerns Wilson weighing her options as an aging actress and deciding to share a bit of her knowledge with an acting class in New Orleans filled with impatient kids more eager to be stars than actors. Don't miss it.

Special retrospective screenings are also a part of the Reeling lineup, highlighted by a 10th anniversary screening of Ang Lee's multiple-Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain, the instant classic of the hidden love story of two cowboys in Wyoming in 1963, and a fifth anniversary screening of Luca Guadagnino's lavish I Am Love, starring Tilda Swinton as an Italian matriarch who finds inspiration in her daughter's lesbian love story to find her own happiness. These two celebratory films with their sensational acting are matched by the more recent Sand Dollars, a lesbian-themed romantic drama with a tour-de-force performance by Geraldine Chaplin, winner of the Best Actress award at the 2014 Chicago International Film Festival.

Everest

At some point early in their training to climb Mount Everest, the New Zealander lead climber, Adventure Consultants head Rob Hall (played by Jason Clarke), says to his clients that above a certain elevation, "Your body will start to die," and he meant it quite literally. But even he didn't know how literally. Everest tracks the the long ascent that Hall made with a group of paying customers (most were fairly experienced climbers) in May 1996 up to the highest point on the planet, which turned into a unprecedented disaster for many thanks to the unexpected arrival of some of the worst weather the mountain had seen in years.

In the hands of Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (2 Guns, The Deep) — working from a screenplay by William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy — Everest is a perfectly paced adventure story that isn't about heroes and villains. This is strictly a human vs. nature tale, and we know who usually wins those battles. The early part of film gives us a quick rundown of both the climbers as well as the climbing community that had sprung up around Mount Everest at the time. There were 20-some-odd climbing groups at base camp that year, all attempting to summit the mountain, most leaving on the exact same day, which led to bottlenecks at some of the journey's most treacherous points.

At various points throughout the film, once the weather turns, it's nearly impossible to keep track of where individual climbers are along the route, especially since faces are almost entirely covered and most of the men are sporting beards that make them indistinguishable from each other. Among those on the journey were journalist Jon Kraakauer (Michael Kelly), who wrote a book about the climb and is also featured prominently in the current doc Meru, also about climbing an impossible-to-climb peak; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a mailman desperate to feel remarkable; Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), whose ascent up Everest made her one of the only women to reach all Seven Summits; Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), leading a separate group up Everest and probably best known for almost never using supplemental oxygen on his climbs; Texan Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), an adventure addict who lied to his wife (Robin Wright) about never climbing again; and Guy Cotter (Sam Worthington), part of Hall's team who was instrumental in retrieving stranded climbers during this disaster.

With Helen Wilton (Emily Watson) in charge at the base camp, the group had a fairly easy ascent, with the occasional blizzard and a whole lot of clean, calm sky. Per usual, some climbers were forced to come down early for various reasons, but a great many of Hall's team (and all of Fischer's group) summited beautifully. But within hours of beginning to come down again, a massive, violent and unexpected storm swept in trapping everybody unprepared at various unprotected points on the mountain face.

Director Kormákur's emphasis is on making everything look authentic, even at the expense of his actors' comfort, who all look varying degrees of miserable in Everest. Certainly part of that is good acting, but I'm guessing most of it is genuine agony. Despite the inclusion of a few worried and weeping significant others back home (including Keira Knightley playing Hall's very pregnant wife Jan Arnold), the film avoids going the sentimental route as the very real possibility of death begins to rear its head. The first couple of downed climbers die so quickly that you almost don't realize what you've just seen; some simply just stop moving, slump the ground and cease to breathe as the snow quickly covers their bodies. But somehow, it's no less horrifying to watch. The sadness is countered by each new person who somehow stumbles into one of the camps, barely breathing, frostbite visible, coated in a layer of ice.

I don't often comment on whether or not to see a film in 3-D, but Everest is that rare exception. I highly recommend seeking out the nearest 3-D IMAX theater to watch this one. The landscapes are startling in their vastness and beauty, and there are a couple of overhead shots that offer up a perspective that will have your stomach doing a dance in your throat. You might be less aware of the sound design of this film, but with an IMAX sound system, the sound of raging winds, ice cracking, or an avalanche's roar adds an extra, thick layer of fear to the whole experience.

Everest doesn't seek to blame anyone for this massive failure of a mission (although a group of South African climbers are certainly made to look like a bunch of dicks early in the film, refusing to coordinate with the other climbing groups). Although weather was the primary factor, there was a degree of human error as well and a few bad judgment calls at critical junctures. Everest doesn't dwell on these, but it doesn't avoid showing them either, and the film is far better for it. It's a stunning piece of filmmaking overall. There's perhaps a touch too much movie-brand foreshadowing in the early part of the piece, but that's pushed out in favor of solid, straight-forward storytelling that only seems to make this tragedy all the deeper. Prepare to be wowed, but also beware of heaps of sadness throughout.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Having been a fan of The Maze Runner, in large part because I was as intrigued by its many mysteries and less so by all the maze running, I was somewhat surprised and disappointed that the follow-up, The Scorch Trials is mostly just a whole lot of the kids from the maze fleeing from those at the ruling corporation WCKD (pronounced Wicked), and picking up new characters along the way. I don't know how many of you watched the short-lived NBC series "Revolution," but the only differences between that show and this film are the production values. Hell, even some of the actors from that series show up in the Scorch.

Picking up right where the last film left off, the surviving kids from the maze (now called the Gladers, whose memories have been conveniently erased) manage to escape the WCKD facility into the blasted-out remains of the world outside, only to be picked up by another group claiming to be rounding up kids from all over who were also in mazes, nursing them back to health, and sending them somewhere more habitable a dozen or so at a time. These new keepers are led by Janson (Aidan Gillen, Littlefinger from "Game of Thrones"), and the whole set up seems too good to be true, so it's a safe bet it probably is.

Thomas (Dylan O'Brien) is still the de facto leader of the Gladers and is also the most suspicious, and after a little bit of snooping he discovers that these new handlers aren't necessarily good for their health either. Gathering up his core group — including Kaya Scodelario as Teresa, Ki Hong Lee as Minho, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Newt and Dexter Darden as Frypan — they escape into the night, into the Scorch with several groups now on their heels. And the formula repeats itself — the Gladers find a place to hide and make into shelter, but a danger presents itself and they must run to the next place. Sometimes the danger is Janson's team, sometimes WCKD, sometimes these crazed, zombie-like creatures that are infected with a highly contagious disease known as The Flare.

At one location, the group meets a nasty bunch of scavengers led by Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito from "Breaking Bad") and his sidekick Brenda (Rosa Salazar from Night Owls); the kids get captured but are eventually released, form a new alliance with their two new friends and off they go. Later they meet with a group of resistance fighters, led by Mary (Lili Taylor) and Vince (Barry Pepper), who seem to know Thomas from a time before he lost his memory. This issue of who Thomas and the others were in the past becomes a bigger factor in The Scorch Trials, but it all seems a bit dry and obvious; it's certainly not something that can sustain a franchise — Part 3 comes out February 2017!

I happen to like these young actors; they're faces I'm not especially familiar with, so they don't bring any baggage or bad habits with them as they develop these characters. But sadly, that doesn't stop them or the story from being decidedly average. We've seen these ruined worlds and same-old chase scenes a hundred times before in science-fiction films, and without a big-ass maze filled with robotic bugs as your main feature, there's not much else to fall back on. Returning director Wes Ball (a special effects artist, whose only other feature is The Maze Runner) keeps things moving with the help of a slick adaption by T.S. Nowlin of James Dashner's novel.

Boiled down to its essentials, The Scorch Trials is little more than a lot of running interspersed with carefully timed reveals about people's pasts. Perhaps as the series draws to a close and more substantial reveals are made and dealt with, things will pick up in the third chapter. But this one is so run-of-the-mill in terms of action and plot, you can't help but feel substantially let down.

Black Mass

If you plan on seeing Black Mass, the new crime drama about Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger, might I recommend you first check out last year's little-seen documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger, from director Joe Berlinger (who made the Paradise Lost trilogy). Not surprisingly, the two films contain a great deal of overlap, although I will admit I'm surprised by certain choices both make in terms of what was left out and what was emphasized. But being taken through Bulger's story in a more traditional documentary framwork makes it a great deal easier to understand the relationships among the dozens of characters in Black Mass. Just a suggestion.

Black Mass wants us to believe that it is the story of an Irish crime boss in South Boston whose reign of terror lasted from about the mid-'70s until the mid-'80s. And yes, Johnny Depp is quite impressive as Bulger, a man that could shake your hand in friendship and then strangle you as soon as you turn away. The aging up of Depp with makeup is part of the transformation, but there is something about Bulger's dead eyes, discolored tooth, corpse-pale skin and ragged voice that complete the transformation into a fearsome man. It's almost stranger to see him react lovingly to something than it is to start a fight with someone.

But the real central figure in Black Mass is FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, who recently gave us a variation on the creepy guy in The Gift), who is given way more of a story arc than Bulger, who spends the entire film just being a murderous dick. But Connolly is something entirely different and far more complicated. He grew up with the Bulger brothers — Whitey and Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), who went on to become a state senator — who protected him when he was just a kid. Connolly makes it clear that loyalty to and history with a person is the strongest bond there is. Unfortunately, he makes this point to his baffled wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), who is trying to understand and end the relationship her husband has with Whitey.

And while Connoelly is rising in the ranks at the FBI, he has devised an ingenious way to protect Whitey from any prosecution while making it look like he's helping out the FBI by signing him up as a confidential informant, who rarely actually contributes anything solid to active investigations. When Connolly's bosses (Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott) insist that Bulger give them something solid, he complies with something that is not only huge, but also serves to improve his control over South Boston. Connolly is always being played and he couldn't care less because it gives him a regular reason to be in close contact with his childhood hero. Connolly is as complicated an antihero as you'll find in any film this year, and Edgerton walks the line between giddy fan and law enforcement professional beautifully.

Black Mass has an impressive ensemble case that includes Whitey's partners Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons), as well as Dakota Johnson as the mother of Whitey's only son, who dies young, killing the slightest bit of goodness in the man; Peter Sarsgaard as Brian Halloran, who rats out Whitey to the feds and pays the price; Juno Temple as Deborah Hussey, Steve's girlfriend whom Whitey deems killable for spending any amount of time talking to the cops; and Corey Stoll as prosecutor Fred Wyshak, who starts his new job with no bones about going after Whitey and is shocked at the FBI's relationship with him.

Based on the book by the same name from Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill (adapted by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, Black Mass is easily the finest work from relatively new director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace), who has a true gift for discovering the drama and tension in nearly every scene. However, there comes a point where we get that Whitey is a true, unredeemable villain and need to move onto something else about him that never comes. The filmmakers decided to excise any final-act scenes involving Bulger's post-Boston exile with girlfriend at the time Catherine Greig (played by Sienna Miller, who has now been cut from the film), and perhaps in those moments, we would have gotten some level of dimension in Depp's performance. Hopefully one day, we'll get to see those and other much-discussed edited sequences.

The one thing Black Mass never is is boring. It moves at a tight clip, without feeling like it's trying to rush us through a lot of material. There's a patience on display that's impressive, and thanks to a bevy of fascinating characters, director Cooper has an embarrassment of choices about where to turn our attentions next. The film has a steely grey tinge (courtesy of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi) to it that makes it feel appropriately gritty and blue collar; apparently, nothing pretty grows in South Boston. The film is a gripping portrait of two friends who aren't really friends, and in the end, that spells doom for both of them. The film is worth seeing just for Depp's return to serious acting, but it's Edgerton's work that is most captivating. Either way, you win.

Pawn Sacrifice

The life story of chess master Bobby Fischer has always been a difficult one to tell (so much so that no one has ever attempt to, outside of the documentary format), not because Fischer's abilities also drove him insane, but his brand of heightened paranoia involved a great deal of anti-Semitic declarations that rightfully taint his accomplishments in the history books. Pawn Sacrifice certainly doesn't shy away from that aspect of Fischer's ramblings, but it manages to capture his impact and influence on chess players even today by illustrating how a lifetime of straining your mind can potentially damage a person for life.

The film begins at the beginning, with a brief look at Fischer's upbringing by a single mother (Robin Weigart) who would often bring strange men home, leaving Bobby alone with this chess board night after night, as both company when she was out and a distraction from having to listen to her with a succession of men. There are also hints that his mother's socializing with known communists in the 1950s contributed to one of Fischer's phobias — that of Russians, whom he often believed were spying on him, leading him to frequently dismantle entire hotel rooms looking for bugs.

As much as it might have aided Pawn Sacrifice to stick with childhood Bobby to perhaps explain where his mental anguish originated, director Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai, Defiance, Blood Diamond) is eager to bring him Tobey Maguire as the adult Fischer and get us on the road to the true chess champion in all of his self-righteousness, pomposity and increasingly outrageous demands.

Along for the ride — and providing something of a good angel/bad angel combo on Bobby's shoulders — are his lawyer (and self-professed patriot) Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man and "Boardwalk Empire") and long-time friend and fellow chess expert Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard, who can also be seen in Black Mass this week). As screenwriter Steven Knight has drawn these two men, Marshall's allegiances are questionable; he has friends in the government who desperately want to see Fischer beat Russian players at the height of the Cold War, even if doing so means Fischer's sanity might be lost forever. Father Lombardy is a calming force who knows he's fighting a losing battle. The two actors are a terrific combination, giving us intelligent verbal jousting that illustrates that they both know the stakes and that, in many ways, they are hopelessly unable to control Fischer's whims, mood swings or behavior.

Various matches and the resulting rankings make it clear that Fischer's only real competitor is Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), and the two men eventually meet in 1972 for the unprecedented 21-match World Chess Championship in Reykjavik, where Fischer's truly unconventional, still-studied techniques reveal themselves. Although Spassky comes across as being cool as the proverbial cucumber, Pawn Sacrifice reveals quite cleverly that he too could show signs of being a bit eccentric and mentally unbalanced when the pressure was on. Schreiber has always been a remarkably versatile actor, but in a brief sequence where Spassky insists there is an issue with his chair in the middle of a game, he proves equally capable with Maguire of letting the crazy slip through.

We get a brief glimpse of Bobby's older sister Joan (Lily Rabe), who is doing her best to watch out for her brother's interests from a distance. The occasional letter or late night phone call from Bobby are about all she gets, and I would have loved to see more of her actually getting through to him. But Pawn Sacrifice keeps to its message of being a story of the times. The Cold War was a time when Fischer's anti-Russian rants might not have seemed so out of place, and his battle against the hero of the Soviet state made for a pleasant distraction for Americans getting images of Vietnam and the Watergate scandal pumped into their living rooms nightly. Bobby didn't make it easy for people to love him, but what he wanted more was for them to respect and acknowledge his greatness.

Director Zwick completely nails his attempt to make a thinking-player's game something cinematic thanks to some well-placed, whispered commentary from Father Lombardy. He humanizes the competition and makes impenetrable strategy make some degree of sense — no easy task. Pawn Sacrifice may be a tough film for some to engage with, since there's a rather abrasive figure at its center, but I think those that find a way in will be impressed with the acting, Knight's rather detailed script, and Zwick's mastery as a filmmaker of complex stories — and impressive package when all put together. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Sleeping with Other People

In any other standard-issue romantic comedy, the leads in Sleeping with Other People would discover that being best friends first is a great foundation for a romantic entanglement. That formula was perhaps most popularized in When Harry Met Sally..., and since then, ironically, it has not been the foundation of many good movies. But the independently made Sleeping is going after a slightly different vibe, one in which old friends Laney (Alison Brie) and Jake (Jason Sudeikis) discover that the only way to get over their self-damaging issues is to remain friends and help each other gently through their pain before they can even consider the meaning of a normal, healthy relationship. If you go into this thinking traditional rom-com, you're in for a bit of an R-rated shocker.

Laney and Jake actually met in college (and the first big laugh of the film is seeing Brie and Sudeikis made to look college age) after she has been stood up by a med student she was prepared to lose her virginity to "just to get it over with." Jake is horrified by this prospect, deciding to romance her a bit, and they end up losing it to each other before the night is out, but they never see each other again after that until a chance meeting 12 years later at a Sex Addicts Anonymous meeting. I'm not sure sex addiction is quite the problem, but they both do share a predilection for cheating. He sleeps with one woman after another, never really allowing himself to commit, while she cheats with the same guy — in fact, the same guy who stood her up in college, now a doctor, named Matthew (Adam Scott).

Rather than sleep with each other, Laney and Jake agree to start hanging out, something they seem to really like to do, and talk about some truly intimate details of their sex lives. In other words, they act like a cute couple in every way except having sex. As gimmicky as it sounds, it actually works quite nicely, and the actors are a great team when it comes to quick dialogue and well-delivered moments of dramatic honestly. Laney has got a agonizingly warped sense of self worth thanks to basically being used by Dr. Matthew (she's become his full-time mistress), while Jake is afraid to trust, hiding behind humor and something of a con-man game to get women into bed and get them the hell out in the morning.

Sleeping with Other People comes courtesy of smart writer-director Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), who has clearly penned this piece from a place of fresh emotional pain that has healed but has not been forgotten. There are truths about unhealthy relationships and purely lustful attachments that will likely resonate for both sexes. And while the emphasis is usually on the funny, Headland isn't afraid to make things legitimately sexy and sporadically devastating. It's a combination that feels more like life than I was anticipating, and that's tough to do in a rom-com framework.

Lifted by a smattering of fun supporting roles, from the likes of Jason Mantzoukas, Andrea Savage, Amanda Peet and the wonderfully vulgar Natasha Lyonne, Sleeping with Other People doesn't quite play out the way you think it will, and that's a tremendous relief. It's a film that makes you feel something for its characters the same way you respond to people that you want to be your friends. Despite its darker corners, it's a supremely uplifting experience, if only because someone had the guts to make it. It feels familiar yet new, comfortable yet awkward. It's designed to both turn your brain off a little and make you think deeply. I adore that sensation. Trust me on this one. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Coming Home

For reasons I can't quite explain, I'm a sucker for great actor-director teams — from some of the more obvious like Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder, Alec Guinness and David Lean, Johnny Depp and Tim Burton, Samuel L. Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, John Wayne and John Ford, Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman, Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks. The list is endless, and I'd love to know what some of your favorites are. But one that's near the top of my long list is Chinese actress Gong Li and director Zhang Yimou, who have made such works as Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, To Live, Ju Dou, Shanghai Triad, The Story of Qiu Ju, Curse of the Golden Flower and their latest, Coming Home, a moving and heartbreaking love story set against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution.

Gong Li plays Feng, a single mother raising a teenage girl named Dan Dan (Huiwen Zhang), who is an accomplished ballet dancer for the Red Detachment of Women company and shoe in to earn the lead dancer role in an upcoming production. Feng receives word that her long-detained political prisoner husband Lu (Chen Daoming) has escaped and is likely coming to see her. She is warned by the police and local party bosses that she must turn him in if she hears from him, something Dan Dan is perfectly willing to do, since she has no memory of him and says this scandal could ruin her chance to win the lead dance slot.

Sure enough, Lu sneaks into their building and has a brief conversation with Dan Dan during which he tells her to relay to Feng a meeting place the next day at crowded location. Dan Dan delivers the message but also drops a yuan on her father to the authorities, who are also waiting for him at meeting place. Lu is caught, Feng is devastated and Dan Dan loses the role to a lesser dancer. Twenty years later, Lu is finally released and makes it home to find mother and daughter don't speak much, partly because of resentment over the train station incident, and partly because Feng is losing her memory to the point where she doesn't recognize her husband any longer. Worse, she mistakes him for a party official who took advantage of her during hard times without her husband. The heart of Coming Home involves Lu attempting to reintroduce himself into his wife's life, in an effort to get her to trust him, even if she never recognizes him entirely.

Gong Li's performance here will tear you guts out. She's a woman who has some degree of knowledge that she has issues but refuses to acknowledge them entirely. She knows her daughter's face still (although she thinks she's still a teenage dance student), and the two go to the shipyards on the 5th of every month because that's when Lu said he would be returning from prison, he just didn't say which month. Lu finds small, painfully sweet ways to indoctrinate himself back into Feng's life, and lets her think that new notes and gifts are coming from her locked up husband. Sometimes the plan backfires; other times, they hit the mark and the two can spend time together, at least until the following day when he must start from scratch.

Coming Home is a quiet, evenly paced work that shows Zhang Yimou is in no hurry to move his characters through this simple combination of mourning someone who is still living and trying to find new ways to get someone to love you. Memory can be a funny thing on a good day, but the idea of being locked away for 30-some years and return to a loved one who doesn't know you is devastating to even consider, let alone live through. Quite often the Gong Li-Zhang Yimou films are colorful, vibrant experiences, but Coming Home is dingy, with only small flashes of color that draw our eyes to specific locations on the screen. At one point in the film, we see a scrapbook filled with photos that include Lu, but Dan Dan cut out his face of every one them in anger when she was a young girl. The idea that Feng's memory has essentially done the same thing is almost too painful to consider, but it provides opportunities for some phenomenal acting and subtle direction. It may not be their best combination as a creative team, but it's certainly one that shows how far their partnership has evolved and matured. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center.

The Second Mother

Already selected as Brazil's official entry for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, The Second Mother is a desperately moving work from writer-director Anna Muylaert (Smoke Gets in Your Eyes) about Val (Regina Casé), a loyal, long-time live-in housekeeper for a well-off Sao Paulo family. The family treats Val like part of their family, except when they don't, which is when they need to remind her of her place as a servant. But that doesn't stop the mother, Barbara (Karine Teles) and father Carlos (Lourenco Mutarelli) from allowing Val to essentially raise their now 18-year-old son Fabinho (Michel Joelsas) as her own.

Into this fairly stable environment comes Val's estranged daughter Jessica (Camila Márdila), whom Val left behind years earlier to seek work in the city, which she sent back so that her hateful ex-husband could raise their daughter, with Val returning to visit infrequently — the last time being 10 years earlier. Being the same age as Fabinho, Jessica is in Sao Paulo to take the entrance exam to get into an architecture school, a fact that piques the interest of the family and something that puts her in a higher class than Val in their eyes. A great deal of The Second Mother deals with this unspoken hierarchy and Jessica simply deciding that she doesn't work for this family, so she acts like their guest rather than the daughter of the help, with mixed results from all, including her mother.

Both the father and son seem quite taken with the lovely, smart Jessica, with Carlos becoming quite attached to showing her the city and helping her with he studies even more than he is his own son. At one point, Carlos even proposes to Jessica, then later plays off the desperate measure as a joke. Meanwhile Barbara seems utterly offended by Jessica having free range of her home, going so far as to have the family pool drained and cleaned after Jessica dares to take a swim in it. Val's loyalty is put to the test — she doesn't want to rock the boat and lose her job, but she also wants to stay close to her daughter, with whom she's never really had a relationship.

Regina Casé is a pure and marvelous performer. There is nothing inauthentic about her acting in this, so much so that her every reaction to her daughter's defiant behavior mirrors our own. We cringe when a member of the family treats Val as something less than equal, but we also are driven to tell the daughter to stop being a brat. And we're torn when Val tells her daughter to stop thinking she's better than she is, when any mother would want their child to believe the opposite. Director Muylaert handles this class tug-of-war with deft and dignity, all the while acknowledging the close ties that Val feels toward all involved. There are no real villains in The Second Mother — although Barbara comes the closest — and this makes the choices Val must make all the more difficult. It's a quietly powerful work, well worth seeking out. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Captive

I originally saw Captive a couple months back and something called the Justice Film Festival, and while I was grateful for the opportunity to preview it, I'm still at a loss to see exactly how this film puts any type of justice on display. If curiosity gets the best of you and you decide to take a peek at this film, you'll probably decide that it's one of the most bizarre films you'll see all year. Granted, it was a strange story when it really happened in 2005 in suburban Atlanta, but seeing two gifted actors act out this particular drama, it what made me scratch my head. Let me back up...

As accounts go, convicted criminal Brian Nichols (played by David Oyelowo) broke out of prison and murdered the judge assigned to his case and three others before going on the run, stealing cars and otherwise terrorizing a community. He landed up at the home of Ashley Smith (Kate Mara), a meth-addicted single mother, who was trying desperately to be allowed to reunite with her baby daughter. Nichols was mostly looking for a place to hide out, but in the course of their short time together, she pulls out a copy of a book that a fellow addict gave her for spiritual comfort. The book was the faith-based inspirational tome The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren, and Nichols asks Smith to read from the book to pass the time.

The heart of this story are these two broken people, whose fates aren't entirely decided, but if they continue down their respective paths, their outcomes seem pretty clear. Yet somehow, by going through this book, the get enough motivation and strength to consider resolving this standoff peacefully. I tend to avoid faith-based films — and I'm not entirely sure Captive qualifies the way others do — but the cast is what pulled me in and, admittedly, kept me interested in how this story played out. The only thing I knew for sure about the outcome was that Smith lived, since she co-wrote the book, An Unlikely Angel, upon which the film is based (the adaptation is by Brian Bird).

The third major player in this story is Det. John Chestnut (Michael K. Williams of "The Wire" and "Boardwalk Empire"), the man in charge of the manhunt, which brings the police to Smith's apartment doorstep after she manages to get a call out to them. Williams is always terrific, and he is yet another motivating factor to stay with this odd little film, directed by Jerry Jameson, an old-school television-directing veteran going back to late 1960s; he also helmed Airport '77, so yes, this qualifies as yet another bizarre aspect of this movie).

But it's Oyelowo and Mara who essentially hypnotized me into never losing interest in Captive. I do truly believe that there are plenty of people in this messed-up world who probably have been helped to varying degrees by books like the one at the center of this film. I probably wouldn't ever be friends with any of these people, but if through some stroke of twisted luck, it got a mass murderer to turn himself in without killing his hostage, I can back that to a point.

I'm not sure how to rate or review a film like this, beyond just explaining my reaction the way I would any other film. It held my attention, I got wrapped up in these characters' fractured lives, the performances are mesmerizing, and it opened my eyes to a means of inspiration that I will likely never take. Captive is a curiosity, and if any of these actors is a particular favorite (Mimi Rogers also makes an appearance, so there's that), you might be persuaded to check it out. If you want a glimpse into a world of filmmaking you probably haven't been exposed to, this is far better than many of the other faith-based works besieging our theaters of late. Sometimes the sideshow acts end up being the most popular attractions, not always for the right reasons, but it's sometimes tough to know what's right or wrong.

Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor

What begins as an attempt at a realistic look at a small-scale Paris hospital as seen through the eyes of its newest interns turns into a call for less attention to profits and more to patients' needs (apparently even countries with public health care have these issues). Hippocrates brings us head first into this world through 23-year-old Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste from Eden and Diary of a Chambermaid), the determined son of one of the senior doctors at the same hospital. He seems completely knowledgeable as a physician but too hot headed and moody to maintain a professional distance from his patients.

On one overnight shift, he orders a test on a suffering patient that cannot be performed because so much of the hospital's equipment is broken down, so he cancels the test and of course the patient dies overnight, putting him and many of the staff in the unenviable position of having to lie during the brief investigation. The lie doesn't sit well with him, but since he's hesitant to have a strike against him so early in his career, he goes along with it at the behest of his supervisor and his father.

The film's second lead is an Algerian doctor named Abdel (Reda Kateb of Zero Dark Thirty), who is forced to also work as an intern until it can be proven that he qualifies as a full-fledged doctor in France. He's the most competent one on staff and is suspicious about the way Benjamin's patient died. He eventually lets it drop, and two end up becoming friends, leading them to even more questionable calls as emotion-driven doctors rather than ones who would rather treat their limited number of beds like an assembly line — a place to stabilize patients and get them out the door as quickly as possible.

Many of the hospital workers come to blows over the care of a dying elderly woman with a DNR order, who is mistakingly revived. This ethical dilemma is at the core of the second half of the film and is the most interesting part of Hippocrates, and I almost wish the screenplay from director Thomas Lilti (Les yeux bandés) and Pierre Chosson had spent a bit more time diving into the flaws in the administration and the business model of the hospital that led to the patient's faulty care. Instead what we get is a screaming match between the facility's top brass and the lower-level employees about a host of issues, all of which seem to be resolved quite tidily by the end of the film. Even some of the harshest punishments are rescinded, leaving everybody a bit giddy about being a health care professional once again, only 30 minutes after declaring the desire to be a doctor a "curse" rather than a calling.

Hippocrates has a pair of real solid, stabilizing performances at its center, and that certainly enough to make it an easy watch. It's one of those rare films I actually wish had been 15-20 minutes longer just to flesh out some of the ethical debates that serve as its framework. In a strange in-joke, the film features characters all watching an episode of "House, M.D." at one point, and it's a strange coincidence that the movie feels like the pilot of a TV dark comedy/medical drama more than anything that needed to be committed to the big screen. That being said, I'd watch this show. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

Gabriel

Rory Culkin was a tremendous child actor, holding his own against some pretty solid performers in such films as You Can Count on Me, Signs and Mean Creek. And it turns out that, at the ripe old age of 26, the youngest of the more famous Culkin acting brothers (along with Kieran and Macaulay) is a gripping grown-up actor as well. From first-time feature director Lou Howe comes Gabriel, a slight work about a troubled young man who is fixated on finding the one person in his life who treated him like a person worth loving and not some broken freak.

When we meet Gabriel (Culkin), he has just been released from some sort of mental treatment facility and rather than come right home, he takes a detour to the college where this kind person attends. We're not quite sure what's going on in those first few scenes or who "Alice" is to Gabriel, but it turns out she's gone to see her family for a holiday break, which is exactly what Gabriel is supposed to be doing. Eventually he makes his way home, his older brother Matthew (David Call) is furious and knows that his claims of oversleeping and missing his bus are nonsense. His overprotective (for very valid reasons) mother (Alexia Rasmussen) was on the verge of calling the police. And after just a few minutes at home with this vigilant family, we begin to see that Gabriel cannot function here — maybe anywhere.

Some writers have compared Gabriel to The Cather in the Rye, and I'm fairly certain Gabriel, the character (as well as filmmaker Howe), wishes he were that deep a thinker. But the fact is, he was never made for this world, and he has no interest in being a part of the white-bred existence that his brother has slipped into (Matthew's girlfriend joins them the day after Gabriel gets home and all hell breaks loose). But it's clear that Gabriel's only real, substantial thoughts revolve around Alice (Emily Meade from HBO's "The Leftovers"), who was kind to him when they were children and may have even made some silly reference to them getting married.

Gabriel doesn't succeed without Culkin at the core. For all of the flaws and missteps with the film's screenplay, Culkin injects the perfect amount of vulnerability tainted by a societal disconnect that makes his slip effortlessly in and out of sanity. One moment, Gabriel is spouting off dark words of wisdom tinged with even darker humor; the next, he's wielding a knife. This is not an easy film to love, but it's impossible not to appreciate Culkin's growth and abilities as an actor.

The film plays out as you suspect it might: Gabriel escapes a couple more times in search of Alice and eventually finds her. Not surprisingly, she's as confused and weirded out by his behavior as we all are. But there's a gentleness and understanding in those final scenes, to the point where even we get a sense of why this girl might be special to someone. It's heartbreaking pretty much any way this thing plays out, and the filmmaker chooses a way to end things that is actually something close to poetic. If you are a collector of career-best performances, make sure you take a glance at Gabriel. The film will screen in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, Sept. 18 at 8:30pm; Saturday, Sept. 19 at 6:30pm; and Sunday, Sept. 20 at 5:45pm.

 
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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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