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« Review: VICO @ Little House and Comfort Film Disgraced at Goodman Theatre: It Entertains But May Make You Squirm »

Column Fri Sep 25 2015

Sicario, The Intern, Stonewall, The Green Inferno, A Brilliant Young Mind, Goodnight Mommy & The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

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Sicario

Easily one of the finest films you'll see all year, director Denis Villeneuve's (Prisoners, Incendies) Sicario is so good for so many reasons that to break it down into its elements seems sacrilegious, since the complex ways the pieces interconnect is the largest part of its perfection. On the surface, the film is a cynical, yet authentic look at the state of the ongoing, bloody drug war happening on a daily basis along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. But what's going on under the surface of Sicario is what makes it so damn sinister and brilliant and soul crushing.

The movie is also the story of one woman, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), who has just enough of a soul that she feels a commitment to get some brand of justice against the drug dealers who are responsible for a booby trap during an Arizona kidnapping raid that killed fellow officers. When a slick character like Josh Brolin's Matt comes in claiming to be a part of a special task force assigned to get the upper-echelon Mexican drug players responsible for those deaths, Kate really doesn't have a choice but to say yes to whatever is about to happen or how far over the line it might go. Kate knows that Matt is lying — and she suspects he's actually CIA — but that doesn't mean he won't get the job done, especially with the paramilitary operatives he's got at his disposal.

From a screenplay by former "Sons of Anarchy" actor Taylor Sheridan, Sicario also has as its not-so-secret weapon the shadiest of characters, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man who is always around, seems to know the inner workings of these drug games better than anyone, but chooses to stay in the background until his true mission is revealed. He and Kate form an uneasy alliance, mostly because she reminds him of someone he lost a while ago, and as a result, he's uncharacteristically protective of her. When Alejandro is finally set loose in the film's final act, it's almost hard to digest exactly how vengeful he is willing to get.

There isn't any one thing that makes Sicario function so beautifully; it's all things. The story is complex but director Villeneuve does a remarkable job of keeping the pieces fairly clear and the geography of every firefight and chase sequence easy for us to follow. There are a great number of stunning aerial shots of various locations where the action is about to take place, and by allowing us to establish the location like that, the filmmaker lets us know where the good guys and bad guys will be at any given moment.

But there is more to the strategy at play than just points on a map. Sicario breaks down the current state of the war on drugs — as always, we are losing, but the mission plan has changed drastically, and it seems to involve controlling the influx of drugs and its associated violence than flat out stopping it. There are a couple of points during the story where Kate makes it clear that what's about to happen is illegal on the part of the people she's working with, and it is main brutally clear that the lines that should not be crossed have forever moved. Once that lesson sinks in, your vision may seem cloudy and your heart may sink. Even worse (or better, depending on your vantage point) is that these new tactics seem to be working, at least in this version of events.

Sicario is populated by some fascinating supporting players, including Daniel Kaluuya as Kate's FBI partner Reggie, who is trying desperately to look out for her, even though he's not technically part of her work with Matt's team. The way Reggie is treated by the government and military is appalling, because they don't view him as an effective part of the solution. Also floating around the perimeter are Victor Garber as Kate's FBI chief, an unrecognizable Jeffrey Donovan as an early-stage operative working with Matt, and Jon Bernthal, as a police officer that briefly represents Kate's most recent (and failed) shot at a romantic entanglement.

One of the most fascinating and intriguing characters in the film is Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández, probably best know as Agent Sitwell from various Marvel films), a Mexican State Police officer with a wife and child. We see him periodically throughout the film going about his day and night with his family and on the job, and we're not quite sure what his connection to the rest of the plot is until it becomes terribly clear. To include a sidestory like that that doesn't pay off until the final portion of the film is a bold choice by both the screenwriter and the director, but its inclusion shows us just how many good people trying to earn an extra dollar (or perhaps not even given a choice) are pulled into this war and are made to suffer as a result.

As much as some people writing about this film will paint Blunt's Kate as some kind of badass (and she certainly has that in her), that's not really the focal point of her character. She's a ethical member of law enforcement who allows herself to be corrupted just a bit, thinking she can pull herself out when she wants, but the idea of fighting this war from the inside is just too much of a temptation to her. She's knows she's somehow being used, and a part of her doesn't care, even when she says she does. It's by far the best work of Blunt's career, and I can't wait to see what she does in the years to come.

But it's Del Toro's Alejandro that's going to captivate you. Once we realize just how broken and dead inside he is, it's way too late. Quite often with a character like his, you're rooting for him to get the justice he seeks, but I'm not sure that's the case here, which doesn't make him any less intriguing. Del Toro has always been an actor who has been comfortable working in the background, because he knows how to steal a scene by doing what is perceived as nothing — which is, of course, his greatest gift. Small gestures and barely noticeable looks are his tools. The final third of this film belongs to him, and you may wish that wasn't the case by the end, because you can't unsee or easily forget what he does here.

Sicario (which means "Hitman" in Spanish) will absolutely be part of the end-of-year conversation and rightfully so. If you are a sucker for a happy, neatly tied up end, look elsewhere. Go back the kids' table and finish your juice box. This film is for grown folks who enjoy using their brains while watching movies and have a clear sense of the dirty world around them. If that sounds like you, you're in for a hell of a time at the movies.

The Intern

The truth is, you'll probably find something in The Intern to like or laugh with, whether it's Robert De Niro interacting with millennials (mostly guys from "Workaholics," like Anders Holm and Adam DeVine) or the idea of Anne Hathaway being bad at anything... I'll let that one sink in for a second. But the problem with the new film from writer-director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give, What Women Want) is that you'll only enjoy small pieces of it; the rest is difficult to get through without cringing or otherwise wishing for the sweet escape that death would bring you. I know that sounds mean, but I kid you not, this film runs a full two hours, and I promise you will feel every second of it. It's like the second hand of your watch is chasing you.

I like the premise of The Intern: 70-year-old Ben Whittaker (De Niro) is a widower and a recent retiree who is bored doing nothing at home. He takes classes, strikes up random conversations in places, and does everything in his power not to feel time going by (for example, he should not see this movie). One day, Ben spots a flyer for a start-up online fashion company looking for senior interns, and he nails the interview. So he throws on a jacket and tie and begins his new gig as an intern for the company CEO and founder Jules Ostin (Hathaway), who is tough to work for mainly because she's swamped at work and at home, with her husband Matt (Holm) and daughter (JoJo Kushner). Jules doesn't get enough sleep, and Ben makes it his mission to at least make her day a little easier so that can happen.

As the weeks go by, the two become friends, and Ben — a former sales associate — ends up having a lot of great ideas on how to streamline the company. Jules is a very hand-on leader, so she does things like takes a few customer service calls or goes to the warehouse that ships her clothes to see how they can do better work, but it stretches her days thin and as a result, the investors (represented by Andrew Rannells' Cameron) ask her to consider bringing in a more experienced CEO; they even allow her to be the one to select the new person, which puts even more stress on her.

But even Hathaway at her bitchiest is still pretty polite. At one point, she feels Ben is overstepping into her personal life, and then instantly regrets it and brings him back into her life even deeper. Everyone in this film is a decent human being, which would be great in a real-life work environment, but I don't know a single working human being that enjoys a job like that. De Niro is dishing out relationship advice to 20-somethings who only know how to communicate via electronics; he's making time with the office masseuse Fiona (Rene Russo); and he's babysitting Jules' daughter because they adore each other. Everything is just so nice all the time that even when a bit of drama enters the picture, it feels contrived and decidedly solvable.

A film like this might appeal to older audiences, but I have to imagine that even folks closer in age to De Niro than Hathaway would get a little bored after about 80 minutes. I'm completely in favor of the messages the film has about listening to our elders and benefitting from their wisdom about business and people pleasing, but all of that is spoon fed to us in a workplace comedy with low-grade laughs and weird subplots that don't add up to anything. There's a strangely placed scene in which we find out De Niro has high blood pressure (he's spotting popping a pill for it after overexerting himself), which would seem to be a set up for a health scare sequence later. But nope, at least not in this cut of the film. There's another sequence in which Ben and his young co-workers break into Jules' mother's home to delete an accidental email Jules sent. It's kind of amusing, but it takes us miles out of the main story for some cheap giggles.

The bottom line is that The Intern is whole-heartedly mediocre — an intense beige, if you will. It's not especially funny, insightful or inspirational. The proceedings are certainly elevated by the more seasoned, Oscar-winning actors at the center of it, but even they seem to be struggling to find a motivating force to propel them forward, into the lame abyss that is this film.

Hotel Transylvania 2

When I took in the first Hotel Transylvania, I enjoyed the idea that kids might watch this film and get their first exposure to a lot of the monsters that I grew up watching, but in a safe, comical and not even a little bit scary setting — parent-friendly, if you will. Having been the biggest fan of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the thought of having all of the big monsters in one place appealed to me — you've got Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler, who wrote the screenplay, once again, with Robert Smigel), Frankenstein (Kevin James), Wayne the werewolf (Steve Buscemi), Griffin the invisible man (David Spade), and Murray the mummy (Keegan-Michael Key), as well as a host of other creeps at one Transylvania hotel.

This time around, the filmmakers (including the great animation director Genndy Tartakovsky, who also helmed the first film, as well as Samurai Jack) seem to be struggling with an actual story, instead opting to send the core monsters on a little road trip, so the titular hotel is barely in the movie. You see, Drac's vampire daughter Mavis (Selena Gomez) and her human husband Jonathan (Andy Samberg) now have a child named Dennis who doesn't seem to be a vampire (Drac swears he's just a late fanger). Drac does everything in his power to inspire the kid to grow fangs — some of them rather disgusting — and while Dennis' parents are away visiting Jonathan's parents (Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman), Drac and his crew take the kid to a vampire training camp to push the kid once and for all into the realm of vampirism.

The jokes that worked best in the first film and still mostly funny. I'll always love Buscemi's world-weary werewolf Wayne, who has dozens of kids (thanks to his wife having large litters), and he can barely keep his head up enough to care. But all of the kid-friendly horror jokes wear you down after a while, even with a bit of subversiveness tossed in for the adults — child endangerment is a big hit around these parts. I also liked the inclusion of Dracula's angry father Vlad (Mel Brooks), who is racist against humans and has not been told that his granddaughter married one, or that his grandson might be one. There are actually a few knowing jokes that draw comparisons to "mixed" marriages in the real world and ones that include humans and vampires (what is this, "True Blood"?), but the film is a bit too polished and safe to really dig deep into those parallels.

I'm guessing that the youngsters who enjoyed Hotel Transylvania will have the same amount of fun with the second installment, but I can't imagine anyone enjoying it more. But even with the sometimes striking visuals, it's tough to get past the pedestrian humor and paper-thin plot that ends up exactly how you know it will. When you get no surprises and very few laughs, you know you're doomed and in for a long matinee of spoon-fed family fun. Hope you like the taste of garbage.

Stonewall

Someday, maybe someone will make an honest and appealing version of the groundbreaking and window-shattering revolution that went on during the Stonewall Riots in New York city circa 1969. Oh wait, somebody already did — it's a great little documentary from about five years ago called Stonewall Uprising, and I would highly recommend it, especially over action director Roland Emmerich's (2012, Independence Day, 1998's Godzilla remake) Stonewall, which throws together a few real-life characters with a group of fictionalized gay randoms for a story that is meant to capture the birthplace of true gay anger and the call for equal rights. The story couldn't have more relevance, and Stonewall couldn't be any less proof of that.

The film is told through the eyes of Danny Winters (Jeremy Irvine of War Horse), who leaves his Midwest home after getting caught in a compromising position with another boy and heads to NYC, making a bee line for Christopher Street, where he meets all manner of flamboyant gay men, all of whom seem to have been shot out of the closet with a cannon. Danny is not quite prepared to live among these strange creatures, but one in particular, trans sex worker Ray (played by the exceptional Jonny Beauchamp of Showtime's series "Penny Dreadful"), who takes pity on the poor kid and introduces him to her band of merry friends, including an unexpected turn by Caleb Landry Jones as Orphan Annie.

Before long, Danny is hanging out a great deal at the Stonewall Inn, a gay club run by a low-level gangster Ed Murphy (Ron Perlman), who frequently pimps out young, homeless boys to rich clients and has his eyes on Danny. Jonathan Rhys Meyers plays Trevor, a gay activist, who also becomes Danny's first New York boyfriend for a short time. Also floating around the perimeter of the film is Matt Craven as a Deputy Seymour Pine, a member of the morality squad (which later became known as the vice squad), who would raid gay clubs regularly looking mostly for underage boys or men dressed like women, which apparently was a crime back then. While most of the police were on Murphy's payroll, Pine actually wanted to do his job, so he busted joints without warning them ahead of time.

Stonewall certainly hits the bullet points about what was going on in his part of New York at the time. Police would randomly crack the heads of gay men in the neighborhood, just because they could get away with it. Many of the young gay men in the area were forced to resort to sex work to make any kind of money, and since most of them were living on the street, money was scarce. But the film seems more interested in displaying most of its supporting characters as flaming, angry queens without an intelligent thought in their collective heads or a motivation beyond looting to start a revolution and protest the appalling treatment by police and the city. More importantly, Stonewall, the incident, should never be the backdrop for any one person's story. It's the story of collective outrage, and this is where Emmerich truly drops the ball, although, to his credit, he doesn't utterly resort to stereotypes, since he would have been run out on a rail if he did.

The film's biggest crime is sending Danny back to see his family in Indiana, mainly to let them know he's alright (especially his wonderful sister Phoebe, played by Joey King), but also in the secret hope that his father might be a bit more understanding. He also pays a visit to the guy that had a relationship with in high school, now married with a kid on the way. It's a useless 10 minutes of the movie that could have been better spent exploring back in New York. There is no shortage of interesting people of every race, size and shape to meet in that city; why do we need to spend even more time with the whitest white family we can find?

I genuinely believe that director Emmerich's heart was in the right place, and despite what you may have read, Stonewall isn't offensively awful. It just selects the least interesting vantage point from which to tell this story. Someday, someone will tell this story in a feature film in a way that expresses the true nature of this one-of-a-kind uprising. At best, it's an interesting failure; but more often than not, it feels like it's skimming the surface of something far more interesting and significant.

The Green Inferno

This is an easy film to review because, in all likelihood, only one factor is going to determine whether you embrace Eli Roth's long-delayed work The Green Inferno: whether you are capable of extracting any amount of entertainment value from a graphic movie involving cannibalism. If your answer is yes, you'll likely have a blast, as your stomach turns and the bile builds up in your throat. I know I did.

Roth and his co-writer Guillermo Amoedo borrow heavily from the iconography of director Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (minus the animal killings, thank goodness) and a bit of the subversiveness from Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox. The film does not begin well, with a group of mostly student activists all blindly following a leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), who leads them on a mission to the Amazon to block heavy machinery that is tearing down the rain forest.

One of the students is Justine (Lorenza Izzo, who also stars in Roth's soon-to-be-released Knock Knock), whose skepticism about any good they might do for the environment is worn down by the persuasive Alejandro. If I had one major criticism of the film, it's the largely terrible acting by some of the actors playing the activists in New York (Izzo and Levy aside). A part of me wants to believe that Roth planned it that way, since the acting gets much better when their lives are in danger later in the movie, but I'm fairly certain that wasn't the case.

After more or less completing their mission, the group is flying back to civilization on a junky charter plane when it falls apart and crashes in the middle of the jungle. The survivors are discovered by the indigenous people, who have a taste for human flesh and naturally pick the pudgy guy first. The scenes of eating aren't nearly as nasty as the moments where the natives cut apart a a body after smoking it for a time. Meat is meat, but when you can recognize body parts, that's when your gag reflex is tested.

As difficult as it might be to believe, there's a great deal of dark-as-night humor to parts of The Green Inferno, especially in scenes involving a stash of drugs used to help the activists escape (or at least attempt to). But make no mistake, Roth is all about testing limits with this film, and whether you think they're worthy of testing or not doesn't really matter. But he's not just testing boundaries in gore; he's aiming his sights at modern-day, sofa activists who think retweeting counts as some form of meaningful protest. It's clear that Roth hates these buffoons and sees this from of expiration as somehow fitting; he may be right.

But even setting aside the social commentary, The Green Inferno is a tribute to the cannibal sub-genre of horror films as well as a worthy addition to the canon. It's brutal as hell, but it's also beautifully shot by cinematographer Antonio Quercia (thankfully Roth chooses not to make his movie a found-footage work, as Cannibal Holocaust was). For those who have never experienced a film of this ilk, it may serve as a manageable entry point, but I make no promises. You either know your limits or you don't, and The Green Inferno will likely test them no matter how certain you are that you can handle such intense violence. Bon appétit!

A Brilliant Young Mind

Rough around the edges but fairly easy to handle overall, A Brilliant Young Mind (known in some parts of the world and festival circuits as X+Y) is the story of young math genius Nathan (Asa Butterfield of Hugo and Ender's Game), who also happens to fall on the Aspergers's syndrome spectrum, making it difficult for him to communicate with and read the expressions of even those closest to him. The one person he always had a bond with was his father, but in an early scene, the father dies in a car accident, leaving Nathan in the hands of his caring, overworked and overly attentive mother Julie (Sally Hawkins).

When Nathan's true potential in math begins to surface, he attracts the attention of a teacher at his school, Martin Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a former math whiz himself who sees Nathan's potential to make it all way to the UK national team at the International Mathematics Olympiad. While Julie is somewhat frustrated that Nathan responds better to Martin than to her due to their math connection, she's also somewhat relieved, especially when Mr. Humphreys takes a liking to her as well.

Nathan makes the team and travels for the first time alone to, of all places, Taiwan where he must learn to be social and fend for himself in many situations. In Taiwan, he meets the coach of the British team, Richard (Eddie Marsan) as well as Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), the daughter of the Chinese coach, who seems to have a crush on Nathan — another new set of emotions for him to deal with while he's also attempting to hone his math skills so he can take a final exam that will determine whether he makes it into the actual international competition.

Butterfield is the perfect choice for Nathan since he's always seemed mature for his age as an actor. Nathan's angst-ridden face and super-serious manner seem a natural fit for Butterfield, who seems to be drawing a bit from Luke Treadaway's performance in the UK production of the play The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (also about an autistic math genius). Director Morgan Matthews (an established documentary filmmaker making his feature debut) takes a fairly straight-forward approach to the material, although he tends to let his camera linger a bit longer on the serene, colorful scenes in Taiwan, as one would expect.

I particularly liked the way James Graham's screenplay allows the supporting players to have lives of their own (to a degree) outside of revolving around Nathan. In particular, the relationship between Martin and Julie has an extra dimension beyond just being a pairing of convenience; Martin has his own health issues that cause him a great deal of anxiety and mental anguish, and Julie helps to soothe him in a way he desperately requires.

A Brilliant Young Mind also wraps up in a way I hadn't anticipated, and I'm always happy to give a film a few points for surprising me. Nathan is certainly an unlikely protagonist, and his abrasive tendencies may simply grate certain audience members the wrong way, but the second half of the film, as Nathan learns to be more independent, is ultimately what makes the film successful as a unique coming-of-age story. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with A Brilliant Young Mind star Asa Butterfield, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Goodnight Mommy

This film is a classic example of the less you know going in the better. I'm going to do my job as a critic and not reveal too much detail regarding the plot of this shocker of an Austrian horror film, Goodnight Mommy, a film that asks impossible questions about identity and guilt. The film begins with twin 9-year-old brothers Elias and Lukas (played by real-life twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz) playing in the fields that partially surround their family's country home.

Their unnamed mother (Susanne Wuest) has just come home from a round of substantial cosmetic surgery, which we assume was voluntary since there are indications that she is a television personality and might be more apt to have a few things nipped and tucked. Her face is entirely bandaged, and before long, the boys have convinced themselves that this woman is not their mother. What begins as suspicion becomes full-out subversive behavior, which is made all the worse by the fact that the mother clearly favors one of the boys, almost refusing to acknowledge the other when she gets angry.

Goodnight Mommy becomes a series of encounters and small tests that escalate into something so much worse before it's over. Co-writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have an uncanny gift for pacing and atmosphere, and when we eventually realize that we will see the mother's face before the end of the film, it's also clear that the boys have worked themselves up into such a frenzy that no matter who they see under those bandages, they won't believe this woman is their mother.

The Schwarz brothers are absolutely terrifying, and there isn't an inch of their performance in which they are attempting to be that way. There's just something in the combination of their good looks, dead eyes, and conspiratorial nature that makes you completely sure that they are capable of the worst things. It's an awful and absolute necessary feeling to have as an audience member, and it makes Goodnight Mommy great. Lovers of full-on creepy, moody, original horror are going to eat this one up and want more from this highly effective directing team. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

You've heard the names. You might even know some of the stories. But the sweeping documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution pulls it all together in a stunning work that tracks the rise, the fall, and the lasting impact of the Black Panther Party, from its founding in 1966 Oakland to its fracturing and ultimate dissolution as several members fault over the direction and vision of an organization founded to put an end to police harassment.

Using a treasure trove of priceless and often uncensored archival footage, director Stanley Nelson (Jonestown, Freedom Riders) has assembled a more or less complete timeline for the group, best known by some for providing free breakfasts for young school children in communities across the country. But Nelson also covers some of the Party's most vocal and, as a result, most targeted members, including Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, David Hilliard, as well as Fred Hampton, who was gunned down during a police and FBI raid. A major component of this film is how FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover specifically targeted the Panther Party, planting informers in their offices and running a well-organized, divide-and-conquer campaign.

Vanguard of the Revolution also examines the inner workings of the party, from the development of its 10-point program/list of demands from the government to the way women in the Party had an additional fight on their hands attempting to be treated as equals among their male counterparts, despite the fact that a majority of party members were women. The film gets into detail about the Panthers' practice of carrying guns and how they brandished them when the police were spotted unjustly bothering someone. The movie digs into everything from dress codes to the way the Party began to influence elections, even running its members in various local contests.

Vanguard of the Revolution is also a tale of dissension, from within and without, and the Party's ultimate demise is both unfortunate and inevitable, as members begin being labeled domestic terrorists, stockpiling weapons and planning the overthrow of the government. They didn't stand a chance, but their emphasis on pride and giving back are still evident in many cities. The more recent interviews for former Panther Party members are not your run-of-the-mill talking head pieces. There is still a fire in these people that is evident and vital, and it spreads throughout this exceptional work.

The film opens today in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with many screenings already sold out. Several of the screening will have guest Q&A and introductions, including one with director Stanley Nelson on Sunday, Sept. 27 at 5pm. Check the Film Center's website for showtimes and a list of special guests.

 
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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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