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Column Fri Oct 23 2015

Music Box of Horrors, The Last Witch Hunter, Room, Rock the Kasbah & Experimenter

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The Music Box of Horrors 2015

It doesn't feel like the Halloween season in Chicago until the Music Box Theatre spends 24 hours scaring the crap out of us and drenching us with blood and guts as part of its Music Box of Horrors marathon, taking place from Saturday, Oct. 24 at noon until Sunday, Oct. 25 at noon.

With a few key personnel changes at the Music Box, this year's event has been guest curated and will be hosted by Will Morris, assistant programmer at Los Angeles' Cinefamily. Thankfully, Morris is keeping up the long-standing tradition of having nearly all of the vintage films screened in 35mm prints, including works like Wes Craven's underrated The Serpent and the Rainbow, an unrated cut of Frankenhooker, the only known print of the classic '80s alien gorefest Xtro the "Hatchet Murders cut" of Dario Argento's Deep Red, Child's Play 2, Ganja & Hess director William Lustig's (who is scheduled to appear) classic slasher work Maniac, the utterly bizarre cult hit Shock Waves, and Jack Hill's eerie class Spider Baby.

The Box of Horrors also includes director Charles Martin Smith's Trick or Treat, starring Ozzy Osbourne and Gene Simmons; director Tod Browning's pre-Freaks silent masterpiece The Unknown, starring Lon Chaney, featuring a live musical accompaniment by composer Paul Buscarello; and the weekend's sole new film, The Devil's Candy from director Sean Byrne (The Loved Ones), which just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. Actor Ethan Embry (Cheap Thrills) is scheduled to appear.

In addition, Joseph Maddrey will be on hand with a special tribute to horror icon Wes Craven. Maddrey is the author of Beyond Fear and Nightmares in Red White and Blue, and has also written and produced a variety of TV shows, including seven seasons of the Discovery Channel series "A Haunting."

For details on each film, the list of guests, showtimes, and to purchase passes, go to the Music Box Theatre's Music Box of Horror page, and I hope to see you there.

The Last Witch Hunter

For better or worse, the latest film starring Vin Diesel (and his first non-franchise work — meaning Fast & Furious or Riddick films — in nearly 10 years) starts out remarkably strong. In a sequence set 800 years in the past, Diesel's witch-hunting Kaulder is bearded, long-haired and wielding a broad sword, alongside a team of fellow hunters going after the nastiest of them all, the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) in her forest lair after she has unleashed the Black Death upon on the world, which resulted in Kaulder's wife and daughter being killed. But in what we assume is her death knell, the Queen curses Kaulder with immortality, so that he'll be forced to watch anyone he loves die, while he remains, well, Vin Diesel.

Rather than skulk around for hundreds of years as the world's oldest hobo, Kaulder seems to have carved out a rather cushy life for himself, now living in the present day in a swanky New York apartment overlooking Central Park and hunting modern-day witches as part of the clandestine religious organization known as the Axe and Cross. Kaulder only seems to step in when a witch steps out of line and attempts to interfere in an overt way with the human world. It's also made abundantly clear that our hero is quite the ladies man, and of course he is — he looks exactly like Vin Diesel in a beautifully tailored suit and driving an Aston Martin.

One of the more unexpectedly touching parts of the The Last Witch Hunter is the relationship Kaulder has with as series of assistants known simply as Dolans, priests designated to supply him with research, intelligence and perhaps a bit of a conscience. In this film, the outgoing Dolan 36th is played by Michael Caine, and he has clearly made an impact on Kaulder's life beyond their working relationship. As he prepares to step down, 36 introduces the witch hunter to Dolan 37th (Elijah Wood), a bright, eager and slightly green sidekick, as they begin to investigate some strange witchy goings on that could spell trouble for the world at large.

Not surprisingly, a big bad is on the horizon, in the form of Belial (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a Nordic warlock who intends to bring the Witch Queen back to life. (Surprise! Surprise!) Kaulder enlists the assistance of a harmless but still powerful white witch named Chloe (Rose Leslie, formerly of "Game of Thrones"), whose ability to invade people's dreams comes in handy. All of this leads to a fairly epic battle that involves all manner of enhanced Medieval weaponry and a whole lot of bicep action.

The Last Witch Hunter is certainly competently made by director Breck Eisner (Sahara, The Crazies remake), who finds one or two places to actually inject some personality into the proceedings. If memory serves, the original director on this film was meant to be Timur Bekmambetov, and it's not hard to imagine him pushing things a bit more in terms of the visuals and performances. Whether or not that would have been a good thing is unclear.

Diesel seems right at home in this new environment, and while he certainly doesn't stray too far from the personality traits we've grown to appreciate about him over the years, there's something refreshing about this character living in the real(ish) world, away from muscle cars and space aliens. The film is clearly setting things up for a possible franchise, and if that does happen, I hope the filmmakers take the time to explore the Middle Ages version of Kaulder, since there are far more interesting visual opportunities in that era than in the present day (at least that's the case in this film).

I also loved the strength and smarts that Leslie brought to Chloe, whose only true ambition when we meet her is to run her bar well, having no aspirations to use her witch gifts to save the human race. While the idea of a reluctant hero is fairly played out in action movies, Leslie finds a way to make it interesting and authentic. Caine's reliable take on 36 still relies heavily on the wise elder statesman persona that he created in the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight films as Alfred, but it works for him, and it gives us a great deal of necessary information in a type of shorthand. I felt a bit bad for Wood's 37, who is introduced strong but spends far too much time off screen.

The effects in The Last Witch Hunter are one of the film's highlights. They alternate between darkly moody and atmospheric to splashy, fiery and mildly terrifying. There's a giant creature called the Sentinal that is especially impressive, with his body made of stone and wood and other earthy materials. I wish as much time had been taken to craft more interesting characters. Any amount of warmth and personality shown here is the product of the actor, not the screenplay (courtesy of Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless). Maybe now that we've got the getting-to-know-you origin story out of the way, if The Last Witch Hunter becomes a franchise, it can open itself up to something a little less stiff and a little more fun and embracive of its witchy roots. Still, it's not a terrible first chapter, if that's what it turns out to be.

Room

A great deal of what makes Room such a special film is that it captures the idea of perception. Specifically, it reminds us that how we perceive the world around us — its makeup, its vastness, its shape and size — informs our emotional response to everything. If you believe that the world begins and ends in the 10x10x10-foot enclosure that you've known your entire life and shared with your good-natured mother, then you would never actually know that you're a prisoner, kept by a sadistic monster who regularly visits your mother while you're supposed to be asleep and sexually assaults her — something she allows for the sake of keeping you safe.

Based on the novel by Emma Donoghue (who also adapted the screenplay), Room is an exercise is controlling emotion in order to keep yourself and the one you love alive another day. The extraordinary Brie Larson (Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now, Trainwreck) plays Ma, who at age 17 or so was kidnapped by a man known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) and has been kept a prisoner in a shed behind his house for seven years. A couple years into her ordeal, he got her pregnant, and now she lives to protect her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay). The first half of the film is told from Jack's limited perspective, and Ma had led him to believe that there is no bigger world, because she knows if he thought there was a world outside Room (as they call it), he'd be curious and get frustrated at being kept away from discovering new things.

The two have literally never been separated since his birth, and Ma has created a mythology about Room that seems to keep Jack calm most of the time. He sleeps in a cupboard when Old Nick visits, and has no idea at the horror his mother is living every day and her struggle to make this space seem normal, while she keeps upbeat under horrific conditions. In such small confines, even we begin to notice the little things that Ma has done to the place to make it feel like a home. But as Jack begins to get older and question more about their life, Ma begins to plot a way for at least her son to escape by faking his death.

Another remarkable aspect of Room is that the end game isn't escape. And I'm not ruining anything by telling you that Ma and Jack get out around the film's mid-way point in an almost inconceivable blur of chaos and freedom that Jack simply can't comprehend with his newfound knowledge that the world goes beyond four walls and a ceiling. Shortly before the escape attempt, Ma begins to unravel some of her lies about Room, and Jack simply refuses to believe her... until he does.

The true trauma of their situation doesn't set in until they are free and in the hands of the authorities, doctors, and eventually Ma's parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy), who it turns out split up after their daughter was taken and never found. As happy as Ma (whose name turns out to be Joy) is to be out of Room, at least that setting and its perils were familiar to her. In the real world, much has changed, people are looking at her strangely (and not all kindly), and her son has no idea what anything is. To that point, watching Jack navigate a small set of stairs is heartbreaking.

Director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank) recognizes that Joy getting free is only the first of many steps toward reclaiming her life and finding a place for her and Jack among people. We understand even as the film winds down that this will be a long and painful journey, but it's also one full of hope and worthy of no small amount of cautious optimism. Much of Room is about watching Larson's perfectly measured performance shift once Joy is free. Now, the fine line she was walking between calm and losing her mind while in Room has broken down, and she's finally able to let her unfocused rage take hold in the wake of her trauma.

A unwise sit down with a talk show host (Wendy Crewson) brings out much of the guilt she's buried deep, while her father can't even look at Jack without feeling some amount of shame — a fact that forces him out of the picture sooner than expected. But the film also shows us Jack's side of things in this transition period, where he learns to do the simplest things like talk to people other than his mother or read facial expressions or understand what a dog is or toys or seasons. I can't remember a time when I felt so actively engaged by a film.

To fully appreciate Room, you have to work hard to get inside the minds of these two characters, see the world through their eyes, and understand how steep their uphill battle toward normal is going to be for years to come. I realize I'm making Room sound like an overwhelmingly emotional experience (it can be at times, but not in a lingering way), most of the emotion is fairly positive and promising. You've never seen anything quite like this one, at least not something looked at from this perspective, and it's one of the many reasons the film will linger in you mind long after you see it, making it one of the most unforgettable experiences you'll have at the movies this year. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Room star Brie Larson, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Rock the Kasbah

If you've ever had the urge to watch a fun actor flail in the name of making a terrible movie just a little more watchable, then treat yourself to director Barry (Wag the Dog, Rain Man, The Natural) Levinson's Rock the Kasbah, which is said to be based on a true story but has gutted that story in favor of one about a middle-aged white guy. Look, if you're going to have your film focus on a sad white guy, you're in pretty good hands with Bill Murray, who plays Richie Lanz, a never-was music manager who discovers a young woman with an extraordinary voice and gets her booked on a TV talent show so the rest of the country can hear her too. The only twist is, the country in question is Afghanistan, and the singer is a Pashtun woman, whose very appearance on television is putting her life in danger.

Some version of these events happened on "Afghan Star" (similar to "American Idol"), but rather than throw the spotlight on the character of Salima (Leem Lubany), Levinson and screenwriter Mitch Glazer (Scrooged) turn the attention on Lanz and the rather dull story that put him in Afghanistan in the first place. Being barely connected to the business of show has never stopped Richie from acting like he has connection. He and his assistant/would-be singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) are seen taking on new clients but then charging them money to get the promotion process going. It's a scam and one that Richie swear in temporary. Calling him on his promise to turn her into a big singing sensation, Ronnie allows herself to get booked on a package USO tour of Afghanistan, something she is terrified to do, but it's a guaranteed paycheck.

Almost from the first frame of Rock the Kasbah, Murray seems to be free-styling every line delivery. Script be damned, he's going to make this movie funny if it kills him, and it probably will come close. But even the most naturally funny actors need some sort of structure to build the comedy upon, and this film does not provide that foundation for Murray and his fellow actors. Of course a few jokes work, but a surprising few even made me smile, let alone laugh.

As this version of the story plays out, once Richie and Ronnie get to Kabul, Ronnie panics and leaves under cover of night almost immediately, as if Deschanel suddenly remembered she could be doing anything but this dopey film. She's just gone, and her presence is missed. Rock the Kasbah is the type of movie that thinks cameos, just by their very nature, are funny, as is evidenced by the weird mix of familiar faces popping in and out of the story in a variety of unfunny ways. Bruce Willis shows us as Bombay Brian, an ex-military solider for hire who befriend Ronnie and eventually helps Richie out to free his new singer from the restrictive clutches of her father. Scott Caan and Danny McBride are here at the beginning as amateur arms dealers making money faster than they can count it, who send Richie out on an errand for them (he needs the cash) and he almost gets killed in the process. But, it's during that errand that he first hears Salima, secretly singing Cat Stevens' songs in English in a cave near her remote village.

Some of the banter between Richie and the host of "Afghan Star," during which Richie convinces him to book Salima and break new ground in the country is classic, fast-talking Murray, actually trying to negotiate his way into a better situation. And that's fine, but an entire movie of that is too much to digest, especially when, in most cases, the stakes are nearly as high as that particular scene. There are literally moments when you catch a look on Murray's face that screams, "Are we done here?" after two minutes of non-stop rambling on his part.

The only real spark of life outside of Murray in this film belongs to Kate Hudson, as desert-dwelling prostitute Merci, who takes a(n unpaid) liking to Richie and uses her connections to help him. But even her sunny personality is squandered in what I'm fairly certain is meant to be satire, but ends up feeling like a ground-into-dust mix of ideas and concepts, none of which are ever fully explored to anything resembling satisfaction. Everyone in this film (with the possible exception of Scott Caan) is capable of far better work, and if nothing else, Rock the Kasbah reminds us of that for the entirety of it running time. Only the most die-hard Murray fans — those willing to suffer bodily harm to see him in a new movie — should see this mind-numbingly disappointing work.

Experimenter

It seems odd that two films about undeniably significant psychological experiments should come out in the same year, with both having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Out earlier this year, The Stanford Prison Experiment re-created the 1971 examination of college students, who were randomly assigned roles of either prisoners or guards in a mock prison set up, with almost instantaneously shocking results that revealed a great deal about assigned roles of power. But 10 years earlier, in a not-dissimilar way, behavioral psychologist Stanley Milgram performed simple experiments at Yale University that revealed the way humans respond to authority, even when an authority figures gives them instructions that go against their moral code.

Peter Sarsgaard (currently also in Pawn Sacrifice and Black Mass) plays Milgram as a self-assured researcher who is as surprised by the results as his superiors in his department, who assured him that the majority of the subjects would bow out of delivering electric shocks to an unseen confederate for giving wrong answers in a bogus memory test. With only the gentle prodding of a man in a lab coat in the room with them, the subjects continued to deliver increasingly painful shocks until the experiment was over. They hemmed and hawed and sometimes requested that the unseen shockee be looked in on, but a full two-thirds never stopped.

In the early part of the film, Experimenter never lets us forget that the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was being broadcast into homes around the world, accompanied by his "I was only following orders" mantra, so it's not surprising that Milgram's work struck a chord (or nerve) with not just people in the psychological community but with the general public, most of whom simply knew Milgram as the guy who shocked people (which was actually not true).

Directed with an amusing degree of surrealism at times by Michael Almerevda (Nadja, as well as recent adaptations of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Cymbeline, both starring Ethan Hawke), Experimenter features a few familiar faces in smaller roles as test subjects, including actors like Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin and most memorably John Leguizamo, who give us the range of responses from mildly resistant to simply walking out of the room when things seem to get too cruel for the seemingly suffering man in the other room (played with a great deal of gusto by comedian Jim Gaffigan).

The film loses a bit of its edge and power once Milgram releases his findings, and the world seems to turn against him initially (today, his experiments are treated as gospel) as he's painted as some sort of mad scientist and manipulative doctor. The version of a paranoid Milgram feels less interesting, especially when his concerns about reputation begin to seep into his relationship with his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder), who stands by him despite her misgivings about the experiments as well.

At times, Experimenter is meant to feel deliberately artificial. The backdrops during driving sequences are clearly back-screen projection, with no attempt made to hide this. Milgram frequently addresses the camera directly, acting as a narrator through his own life story, meaning that the perspective on the events is always slightly skewed in his favor — the unreliable narrator is fully at play here. I have no objections to this approach the material, but I question why director Almerevda opted for some of these storytelling choices and what it adds to the overall film.

Experimenter works best when it sticks to the facts. I especially loved the late-film re-creation of the Milgram's works as a made-for-TV dramatic movie The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert), who is quite supportive of the importance of Milgram's findings, and not just as they relate to the Nazi machine. The film goes into some of Milgram's other, less impactful but no less important experiments in behavior. And I had no idea that the concept of "six degrees of separation" partially arose out of his "small world experiments" (naturally, there are those that disclaim his findings).

Experimenter works as a fascinating examination of a critical figure in history, whose work remains controversial, but when his story begins to get a bit too self-referential, it's easy to lose interest. His personal successes and failures are as worthy of exploration as his scientific work, but the idea that one may have caused the downfall of the other seems a bit too easy. As usual, Sarsgaard is remarkable here, even when he is called up to do some ridiculous things in the name of surreal storytelling. Still, something about the film as a whole doesn't quite click in place, despite a handful of truly great moments. It's certainly one of the more confident and gutsy films of late, and that may be enough to hold your interest. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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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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