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Column Fri Oct 16 2015

CIFF, Crimson Peak, Bridge of Spies, Steve Jobs & Beasts of No Nation


51st Chicago International Film Festival

I've been lucky enough to have seen quite a few of the more than 150 features being shown over the next two weeks as part of the 51th annual Chicago International Film Festival, October 15-29 at AMC River East 21, which has a palpable reinvigorated glow about it coming off of its highly successful 50th anniversary celebration last year. While many higher-profile, more recognizable art house films are being shown, as always, the best part of any film festival is taking a chance on something you may never get to see again. If you haven't checked out my interview with CIFF programming director Mimi Plauché, she has quite a few of her own recommendations. But allow me to name-drop a few titles, some of which I've seen, others I'm offering up based on reputation on the year's festival circuit.

Among the better-known offerings at this year's CIFF are The 33, a feature film telling of the Chilean miners stuck underground for nearly 70 days; 45 Years, featuring an acting tour de force from Charlotte Rampling; Michael Moore's latest documentary, Where to Invade Next, a heartfelt look at the state (and location) of the American Dream; director Atom Egoyan's Remember, about the hunt for a long-missing Nazi war criminal, starring Christopher Plummer; the elegant Taiwanese martial arts piece The Assassin; director Todd Haynes' much acclaimed Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara; Hitchcock/Truffaut, the engrossing doc about the famous interview sessions between the two great directors; legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman latest epic (190-minute) film In Jackson Heights; Sarah Silverman's most dramatic role to date in I Smile Back; and James Franco's revelatory work as gay activist turned ex-gay therapist Michael Glatze in I Am Michael.

Also on tap is the gripping James White, about a troubled young man caring for his ailing mother; Michael Fassbender starring in the latest film adaptation of Macbeth; the Balkan War-set dark comedy A Perfect Day, starring Benicio del Toro and Tim Robbins; the festival circuit favorite Son of Saul; Youth, starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel; director Peter Greenaway's latest, Eisenstein In Guanajuato; the divisive latest from filmmaker Rick Alverson, Entertainment; the explosive Dheepan, about a Sri Lankan rebel attempting to escape his past in Paris; musician Laurie Anderson's Heart of a Dog, her lament about her late dog, Lolabelle; and the meditative Chronic, starring Tim Roth as a home health care worker hiding secrets. The festival Closing Night film is the highly anticipated Spotlight, from director Tom McCarthy, which details the Boston Globe's uncovering of the Catholic priest molestation scandal and subsequent cover-up, with an all-star cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci.

A couple of the best documentaries I've seen so far include In the Underground about workers working a dangerous mine in China — you literally see the tightly confined mine crumbling around the workers (and filmmaker). Also highly recommended is Radical Grace (which is opening next month in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center), concerning the Vatican's recent look into the lives of American nuns, who it believes are too feminist and liberal for the Roman Catholic Church. Also check out Women He's Undressed, about the famed Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly; and Very Semi-Serious, concerning cartoonists (seasoned and newbies) attempting to get their work in The New Yorker magazine.

CIFF continues its long tradition of featuring a vast array of short film programs, with eight this year, including one from Illinois filmmakers, as well as one featured as part of the festival's architecture spotlight. A robust After Dark program always spices things up, and fans of midnight fare should check out The Laundryman, They Look Like People, Ludo, Bite and Tag.

Two standout tributes are featuring as part of CIFF's lineup this year, including one devoted to composer Howard Shore (Martin Scorsese's Hugo will be played in 3-D as part of the day's festivities devoted to Shore), and other two groundbreaking African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett, whose recently restored To Sleep with Anger will screen. There's a great deal to select from, and you should begin by checking out CIFF's screening and events schedule. Hope to see you there.

Crimson Peak

The latest film from director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro begins and ends with the image of a book (titled Crimson Peak, shockingly enough) being opened and closed, so audiences immediately have some sense that what they're about to see may have a tinge of the literary at its core. In fact, in an early scene in Crimson Peak, would-be author Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) tell a perspective publisher that her first novel isn't a ghost story, as he has stated, but rather a romance with ghosts in it. I don't think it takes a great detective to figure out that Edith is also talking about the film we're watching, which embraces its Gothic roots while peppering in a ghost or two at very specific moments in the story.

From a script by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer, Mimic, the remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark), Crimson Peak uses ghosts more as messengers from the past warning us of the future or harbingers of dreadful things to come — things that their human selves faced and succumbed to in the past. When Edith was just a girl, she was visited by the horrific spirit of her mother, warning her about an unknown place called Crimson Peak. As an adult, Edith is a fledgling writer living with her protective industrialist father (Jim Beaver), who is visited by English inventor Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) who has created a design for a new mining machine and is looking for investors in America, after failed attempts in other parts of the world. Traveling with his clingy sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), Thomas crosses paths with Edith, and sparks kick up before long, despite Mr. Cushing's strong reservations about the man.

Edith's longtime friend Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam, who starred in Del Toro's previous film, Pacific Rim) is also wary of the Sharpes but says nothing, not wishing to offend her. Del Toro is clearly borrowing from stories like Jane Eyre or Rebecca for both visual cues and a way of steering the plot, but having Edith be especially sensitive to the spirit world makes her exceedingly interesting. After her father meets an untimely (and rather violent) death, Edith is easy prey for Mr. Sharpe, who sweeps in, overwhelms her with sweet talk and seemingly good intentions, and before long the two are married, and Edith is swept away by the Sharpes to their vast, crumbling, dilapidated manor, where the red clay just beneath the grounds bleeds through everything from the floor boards of the home to the winter snow — the image of blood-red stains forming on freshly fallen snow is fairly alarming and gorgeous.

The massive home is a crumbling, rotting structure with a hole in the roof where leaves, rain and snow come in regularly. A creaky elevator goes from the creepy attic to the secret-keeping lower level, where part of the Sharpe mining operation is housed (apparently the red clay is a fine material for bricks). And before too long, a new set of ghosts start to visit Edith in her sleeping and waking states, giving her clues to the secrets of both the house and its occupants.

Crimson Peak is a film almost dripping with stunning production design, extravagant costumes, and a rich atmosphere, thick with a healthy combination of opulence and decay. The house is rotting in the same way the souls of the Sharpes are, for reasons I won't go into. But it's easy to tell early on that the brother and sister have a great deal of answer for in terms of their ethics and moral compasses. Wasikowska has a perfect blend of naivety and strength, as a woman attempting to break into the world of publishing, but lacking any real life experience to sell a romance as anything close to authentic.

Hiddleston infuses Thomas with just enough heart to make us realize he's a man driven by desperation and not twisted greed, the way his sister is. By the end, it's clear that his affection for Edith is very real, and he attempts in his own way to protect her. Chastain gives the key performance here, drawing heavily from Jane Eyre's Mrs. Fairfax, but creating her own special brand of wickedness without overselling it. She makes Crimson Peak fun, in a sense, by being perfectly deviant and judgmental about Edith marrying her brother.

A case could be made that Crimson Peak is somewhat thin on story, and perhaps compared to other Del Toro films or modern films set in the horror arena; that may be true, but this movie has more modest goals than piling on plot on top of plot. Trust me, there is plenty of history to learn about, as well as newly minted mysteries to uncover and keep viewers' brains working overtime. The film is devastatingly handsome, lovingly created and splendidly acted, making for a fully captivating experience like very few things you've seen in this century.

Bridge of Spies

With so many splashy credits to his name, it's sometimes easy to forget that director Steven Spielberg is first and foremost a terrific storyteller. Opting for a low-key approach with his latest work, Bridge of Spies (from a screenplay credited to Matt Charman and Joel & Ethan Coen), tells the true story of insurance lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who played a pivotal role in one of the more interesting moments of the Cold War, beginning in 1957 with his defense of captured KGB agent Rudolf Abel (an extraordinary example of understatement by British theater actor Mark Rylance), on trial for espionage in the United States.

By all rights, Abel should have received the death penalty, but a forward-thinking Donovan — forced to take the case by his firm's lead partner Thomas Watters Jr. (Alan Alda) — realized the value of a living Russian prisoner should an exchange for an American captive ever come to pass. For a brief moment in time, Donovan is one of the most hated men in America for defending Abel (even his wife Mary, played by Amy Ryan, questions his strategy), but once he commits, he become fully vested in seeing his client not be executed.

Having succeeded in securing a life sentence for Abel, Donovan moves on until 1962, when a CIA U-2 spy plane goes down in the wrong part of East Germany, and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) is captured and also convicted of spying. And with that, the pieces for the exchange Donovan anticipated were in place. Since the governments of Russia and the U.S. couldn't be perceived to be speaking directly about an exchange, Donovan was once again brought in to act as a civilian mediator and negotiator, leading to a near-comic series of events involving the Soviets, Germans and Americans, who each had their own private and public agendas.

One of the strangest and most refreshing elements of Bridge of Spies is witnessing the planning and execution of Donovan's remarkable strategies. He's never afraid to push for a little more, while knowing when not to ask for too much. More importantly, the film is filled with moments of Donovan laying out a plan, and then carrying out said plan more or less just like he arranged it. There aren't any wild curve balls or unexpected left turns. When things don't go quite as scheduled, he adjusts.

This may sound slightly less than dramatic, but somehow watching an intelligent person capable of reading people and managing his expectations plot a complicated exchange in which East Germany doesn't look like a Soviet pawn (Sebastian Koch is terrific as the frustrated Germany representative in the talks, Wolfgang Vogel), while the Russians and American don't look to be losing face either, is strangely exciting stuff.

Any time the film strays from the main story involving Donovan and Abel, I lost an iota of interest. There's a bit too much here involving Donovan and his family, in particular a useless subplot involving his daughter Carol (Eve Hewson, Bono's daughter and star of Cinemax's "The Knick"), but thankfully Spielberg doesn't linger too long on the homefront. Once Donovan makes his way to Berlin, Bridge of Spies becomes a work of international intrigue, the likes of which you've likely not seen. While there is certainly the presence of spies in the story, the real work is done by a man just trying to save American lives, regardless of the political consequences.

Hanks brings his Everyman qualities to Donovan, a man driven by a clear sense of what is right, and it's almost impossible not to love the character and his motivations. His scenes with Rylance as Abel are the highlights of the film, as their contrasting personalities and styles work beautifully to balance each other out. Abel is so dialed back and calm despite having an entire nation wish him dead, and anyone who questions why is isn't more worried is met with "Would it help?" as an answer. He's the antithesis of every Russian spy we've ever seen in films, and it's a pleasure just to watch Rylance breathe life into him by allowing his stoicism to make him human and rather funny at times.

Spielberg and company do a great job capturing the rampant paranoia of the Cold War — from both the government's perspective and the civilian side (Donovan's son is a big fan of the "Duck and Cover" films he's shown in school). The noirish costumes and pale gray look of Berlin in winter add to the mystique of it all, but Spielberg also seems intent on keeping his feet firmly planted in reality and not getting lost in spy-movie cliches. Bridge of Spies is extraordinary because it manages to make its characters so ordinary. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, these were just people doing the jobs their countries gave them. They were small players doing big things, and they rose to the occasion and performed admirably. The director has been known to make a feel-good film every now and again, but Bridge of Spies manages to be one without a lot of fanfare, and it all works.

Steve Jobs

Far from attempting to be a complete portrait of the Apple Inc. co-founder, Steve Jobs tracks the visionary across roughly 15 years of his life through a handful of core relationships, ranging from his co-workers and friends to a young girl named Lisa, who loved him despite the fact that he frequently denied his parentage of her. It's a fascinating and largely successful way of providing an overview of a man by capturing his reactions to those around him at key moments in his professional life.

As structured, I could easily see this story being presented as a stage play — the film is essentially just three scenes, peppered with brief flashbacks to Jobs's earliest years in his garage — not surprising since the script comes from one-time playwright and celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, "The West Wing," "The Newsroom"), based loosely on Walter Isaacson's epic biography. Over the course of three product launches (and the hour or so leading up to Jobs stepping onstage at each one), we get a certain sense of what Jobs was about and how he chose to deal (or not deal) with the people in his life. Played with the perfect blend of abrasiveness and wry humor by Michael Fassbender, Jobs is painted as a man afraid of being found out. He has a clear idea of where the world is going, but his technical know-how is limited, especially compared to his old-school Apple pals, co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and systems software developer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), both of whom are a part of these three launches in some capacity.

Wozniak is that rare example in Jobs's life of a certified genius who is also a much-loved man by the Apple tech teams, especially the Apple ][ folks, whom Jobs refuses to ever recognize despite the product being the only money maker in the company's early years. The constant struggle in Jobs's life was figuring out that being the smartest guy in the room doesn't mean you can't be a kind person as well. He's called out on this binary way of thinking several times, and the film's most significant dramatic arc is seeing if Jobs every truly awakens to this reality. And the combination of humanity and intelligence Rogen brings to the role is essentially perfect, both as a pure performance and as a counter to Fassbender's walled-off take on Jobs.

Hertzfeld is more concerned with Jobs as a father to Lisa (played by three different young actresses, including Perla Haney-Jardine who portrays her at age 19). He begins the film as the man in charge of making the Macintosh talk in the 1984 launch that followed in Super Bowl "1984" ad that basically changed advertising. People remember the ad far more than they do the computer because the computer was a failure on many levels. The pair have a painfully awkward exchange in the film's final act — set before the 1999 iMac launch, after Jobs has been away from the company for several years after being unceremoniously fired by its board.

Hertzfeld has remained friendly with Lisa and her mother (and Jobs's ex-girlfriend) Chrisann Brennan (played unflatteringly by Inherent Vice breakout Katherine Waterston), and has been helping them out with finances and general advice, including Lisa's decision to see a therapist. Stuhlbarg's knowing work here gives the film a depth that isn't always there on the page. Perhaps more than Wozniak, Hertzfeld is a people person who would rather see those around Jobs happy and healthy than successful and beholden to Jobs. And his final lines to Jobs in this film broke my heart a little.

It's wonderful to see Fassbender wrap his brain around Sorkin's text, managing to move from ruthless to charming in the blink of an eye, especially with those who he deemed have somehow crossed him. Nowhere is this more on display than in his scenes with Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), whose history with Jobs's firing from Apple is convoluted at best. Through their exchanges, we can see that Jobs, an orphan at birth, looked to Sculley as a father figure, so the arguably forced betrayal was all the more unbearable, making Jobs's aggressive retribution outright bloody. The scenes between the two men are easily the most venomous and telling in the film.

Sorkin and director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) emphasize that Jobs wanted his computers to feature closed systems — i.e., incompatible with any other technology not made by Apple — and this speaks volumes about Jobs's inability to play with others. Jobs was a closed system himself, only allowing the minimal number of emotional entry points into his heart and mind, never wanting feelings to crowd out his bigger-picture ideas. But over the course of the 15 years, there is an absolute softening of Jobs's barriers. I don't think it's a coincidence that his Steve Jobs 2.0 (or maybe 3.0) is tied closely to a victorious return to Apple and his first successful product launch in quite some time, but the people around him will take the nice-guy Jobs where they can get him.

My favorite of the three segments — and make no mistake, Steve Jobs plays like three distinct short films, each one shot on a different film stock — is the middle one: the 1988 launch of the NeXT Inc. "black cube." NeXT was Jobs's company after being ousted from Apple, and over the course of this section of the film, it becomes clear what the true purpose of NeXT is, and it reveals just how much of an expert chess player Jobs could be in the business world, despite his claims that he wasn't truly a business kind of guy.

I'm guessing everyone's favorite interactions with Jobs will be those with his right-hand woman Joanna Hoffman (an almost unrecognizable Kate Winslet), with her vaguely Eastern European accent and her capacity to wrangle and directly confront Jobs in ways no one else would dream of. Their banter resembles the finest of '30s and '40s back-and-forth between any number of Golden Age Hollywood actors, only these to don't have a chance of falling in love by the end — that would ruin everything. In many ways, Hoffman's job was to keep her boss human when he most wanted to be a emotionless, destructive robot.

She was the one who insisted on him having these series of quick face-to-face talks with people right before he took the stage, or even while he was on stage rehearsing. Perhaps the thinking was that talking to the important people in his life calmed him, but that sure doesn't seem to be the case. But it sets the stage for so much wonderful dialogue (much of it, in true Sorkin fashion, delivered while power walking around backstage) and soaring, fluid camerawork from cinematographer Alwin Kutchler.

First and foremost, I see Steve Jobs as an acting exercise working to reveal its central character in ways that no one film could do so completely. Sorkin's rhythms will feel familiar but they fit the material brilliantly. It's easy to imagine Jobs having several rapid-fire conversations with multiple people, practically at the same time, and that's where Sorkin lives. The film isn't attempting to fill in all the blanks; it's painting in broad strokes, but it does so with a series of small moments, looks, gestures and pointed words. There will likely be more films about Steve Jobs years from now, but between Boyle's wonderful film and Alex Gibney's documentary, Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, I think we have a strong sense of the good and indifference that made up this complicated man.

Beasts of No Nation

Opening today in both theaters and on Netflix is the latest work from writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre, "True Detective" Season One), Beasts of No Nation, an absolutely shocking examination of the practice of recruiting and using child soldiers in various conflicts in Africa. Although the author (Uzodinma Iweala) of the source material is Nigerian, I'm fairly certain no specific country is mentioned as the setting for this tale of young Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah), living a happy and fulfilling life with his family in their small town. But before long, government soldiers swoop in accusing everyone of being a rebel spy and systematically killing everyone. Agu escapes and must fend for himself in the jungle.

Agu is "saved" by a roving band of actual rebels led by the charismatic Commandant (an electric Idris Elba), who has surrounded himself with mostly children as his battalion, going from village to village, murdering anyone they are ordered to in some truly stomach-turning ways. Fukunaga doesn't bother to hide the truly graphic nature of these killings because to do so would downplay just how horrific and absolutely wrong this practice is. Elba throws himself into this role, not playing the Commandant as an evil man but as a savior of these boys, and in return, they must not question him as both a military leader and spiritual guide. And it should come as no surprise that a man that drunk on power takes advantage of these vulnerable boys in many ways with an alarming regularity.

Young Attah is the film's true gift as he transforms from careful kid to ruthless predator in a relatively short period, by necessity since Commandant seems to have the ability to smell fear. By the time Commandant's group makes it to headquarters and he is given marching orders that he does not agree with, he decides to take the group and branch off separately. Watching Elba transition to a powerless leader is chilling and makes him feel almost smaller as a man.

Beasts of No Nation is not attempting to be a preachy message film about the evils of the world; it wants to show that the the real monsters of the world are most decidedly all too human. And the true tragedy of any war are the lives left behind when the parents and older siblings are killed. Entire generations are left aimless, homeless and attempting to deal with the guilt of what they have been turned into, and the film deals with that briefly in its final moments. Beasts is an exceptional, harrowing and often deeply upsetting work that is impossible to forget.

Fukunaga is very aware of the impact that most viewers will have watching children hold machine guns and machetes and commit horrific, blood-soaked acts that will scar them for life. If you think this may not be something you'd be interested in watching, that's probably why you should make a point to see it. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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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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