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Column Thu Nov 05 2015

Spectre, The Peanuts Movie, Victoria, Love, I Smile Back & Radical Grace

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Spectre

There is a sequence near the end of the 24th official James Bond cinematic outing in which 007 flees the imploding remains of the MI6 headquarters (bombed beyond use in the last Bond film Skyfall) in a speedboat with a beautiful woman whom he's just rescued at his side. In his fourth time as the character, Daniel Craig in this moment is literally riding from the ashes of the old way of spying, toward the new way of intelligence gathering (it sounds less criminal when you put it that way). This new guard is embodied in the new MI5 building being erected across the Thames River, an organization now being overseen by new head of the Centre of National Security Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), also known as "C," who believes the old ways — in particular, the double-0 program — are done and that information collection should be a more transparent process, and that MI5 and MI6 should be combined and share resources and office space.

So we know immediately that James Bond will be spending the entirely of the new film Spectre not just attempting to find the organization and its shadowy leader that have been plaguing him for the previous three movies, but also justifying his very existence. There's nothing like a little job insecurity to light a fire under a person's ass.

After yet another stellar opening sequence set during Mexico City's Day of the Dead celebration, involving buildings falling, a foot chase, gun play and a barrel-rolling helicopter stunt, Bond manages to pull a ring off the finger of his now-dead target. The evidence leads to the discovery that the many villains of Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall (also directed by Spectre helmer Sam Mendes), as well as the death of loved ones during those missions, have all been the result of one shadow organization known as SPECTRE, led by a man named Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who has ties to Bond that are so deep, they help explain the rather personal nature of the pain being inflicted on James in recent missions. And that's as much as I'll say about that.

After enlisting the daughter of Bond's most nagging pain in the ass nemesis of late, Mister White (Jesper Christensen), he embarks on an off-the-books mission to shut down SPECTRE and end Oberhauser's reign of terror for good. The daughter is Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux of Blue Is the Warmest Color and Mission: Impossible-Ghost Protocol), and she's a worthy match for Bond both intellectually and aesthetically, although she wants nothing to do with him physically, which makes for a nice change... for a while.

Although MI6 is effectively shutdown, that doesn't stop its remaining personnel from assisting Bond under the table, hopefully away from C's prying eyes. Not surprisingly, Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Q (Ben Whishaw) are more than willing to sidestep protocol to syphon information to Bond and keep him hidden. There are even points where the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and his right-hand, Tanner (Rory Kinnear), lend a hand.

At this point, I should add a note about casting in Spectre. Bringing Waltz in to play this character (and let's just say, we find out Oberhauser has a new name now from when Bond originally knew him) is a bit on the nose. Granted, the film never tries to pass him off as anything other than the bad guy, but there's little variation between what Waltz did in, say, The Green Hornet and his role in Spectre. It's a little disappointing that the casting director didn't have more imagination in selecting the actor to play the dominating negative force in Bond's life of late. More to the point, when you select the actor who plays Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes" to play a major role in a James Bond movie doesn't exactly steer suspicion away from him as a potential turncoat. The fact that C and Oberhauser are essentially spouting interchangeable dialogue about world security and global surveillance is also a dead giveaway about alliances and such. At least give us a few surprises in your two-and-a-half-hour running time.

And speaking of surprises, the big reveal of the link between Bond and Oberhauser is so unforgivably dull that it lands in the story without even a thud in terms of significance. We already know they have a history, so when the specifics are revealed, they mean absolutely nothing. And dragging out these details until close to the end of the film... well, I used the word "dragging" intentionally.

I was a bit stunned to see four names listed as screenwriters for Spectre (John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and Jez Butterworth) since so much of the plot relies on the previous three films — to the point where photos of actors like Mads Mikkelsen, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Eva Green, and Mathieu Amalric appear throughout the film, often several times to remind us that everything is connected. I'm pretty sure Mikkelsen has more screen time than the all-too-brief, much-touted appearance of age-equivalent Monica Bellucci, popping up early on as the sexy widow of Bond's first kill of the film; she's so distraught over her husband's death that she sleeps with his assassin. Throughout the film, there is a constant string of clues that never stop refreshing our memory that SPECTRE has been behind all of the major chaos in the world of late, and has also taken a personal interest in making James Bond sad. Animals!

The film perks up considerably every time Guardians of the Galaxy star Dave Bautista shows us as the essentially mute assassin Hinx, working for SPECTRE to eliminate Bond. Lord know, he gives it a better shot than most in this film, which never really convinced me outside of the Hinx scenes that Bond's life was in any real danger. Speaking of which, I was confused why Oberhauser spent the majority of the epic running time trying to have Bond killed, only to torture him by poking needles in his brain once he actually has him in his clutches, making it absolutely clear that he did not want him dead. Consistency is so overrated.

Yes, the action sequences are second to none, but that's to be expected in a James Bond film, not that that's any reason to discount them. They are grand in scale, suitably dangerous looking, and a hoot to watch. But these films depend on strongly written characters and a clever plot toward world domination, and Spectre has neither. When I say strongly written characters, I don't mean they need to have reams of backstory and motivation; I just want them to be interesting and evil in a somewhat clever manner. Oberhauser is a cookie-cutter baddie. Without giving away the whole package, I understand that the character has a template in the Bond canon, but the Craig films have done such a strong job of subverting and bringing certain staples of these films into the modern world, I thought they might succeed in doing so with Waltz's character as well.

If all you care about is destruction, Aston-Martins and pretty ladies, your standards have been ground down to a nub and you'll be in heaven watching Spectre. But if the recent Bond entries have raised you expectations a bit, I don't see how you can be anything but disappointed. The performances and directing are are still solid, so this is far from the complete failure. But the committee-style screenwriting team has a lot to answer for.

The Peanuts Movie

For more months than I care to count, the cries of agony over a movie based on the Peanuts comic strips of the late Charles M. Schulz have been sounding louder than air-raid sirens. And when word got out that the film was going to be in 3-D? Good grief! Tales of raped childhoods and memories flushed like so much poop filled every means of social media at our disposal and then some. But perhaps the most shocking news of all is that The Peanuts Movie is really quite wonderful, as it honors what was most good and pure about both the strip and the various television specials that have become required viewing for many major holidays.

Thanks to some clever and faithful storytelling, the film serves a dual purpose of being a greatest hits package for older viewers, and a solid introduction to the characters in some of their most familiar scenarios for new inductees into the world of Charlie Brown, Snoopy & Co. All of the familiar friendships, crushes, adversaries and quirks are all present and accounted for. The main story involves Charlie Brown and his having a thing for the Little Red-Haired Girl who moves in across the street; he's absolutely petrified with anxiety about even talking to her, and with adult eyes, it's much easier to see that nearly all of these characters are amusingly damaged in some way, and that they lean on each other to get through this especially awkward period of childhood. I don't think it's a coincidence that one character, Lucy, runs a pop-up psychiatrist's booth in town — all these kids need it.

There are a couple of reasons you can rest easy when it comes to going into The Peanuts Movie. One is that the creator's son Craig Schultz, grandson Bryan Schultz (both of whom contributed the screenplay, as well), and mega-fan Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) all co-produced the film. If you think about it, Feig's series "Freak and Geeks" is essentially a variation of the Peanuts gang, filled with maladjusted characters each supporting or tormenting each other.

Another reason the film works is that there is almost no attempt to modernize or update the characters beyond the 3-D design and a couple of harmless music cues. These are the same beloved characters, with the same problems, neighborhood, school, and honking adults ("voiced" beautifully by New Orleans legend Trombone Shorty). Another heartbreakingly sweet touch to the film is that the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock are made up of sound cues by the late Bill Melendez, who gave voice to these characters through all of the specials. To hear those hilarious, wordless sounds again made me unexpectedly emotions. In many ways, those are part of the soundtrack of our collective childhood.

Director Steve Martino (Ice Age: Continental Drift, Horton Hears a Who!) and his team made the wise decision when animating the film and deciding to go the 3-D route to make he characters' bodies three dimensional, but allowing their facial features to appear like pencil drawings moving across their heads. They've also left in a few key visual cues like thought bubbles, action lines coming off any character moving fast, and even the dotted path that indicates Woodstock's flight pattern. Does the 3-D make it a better film? I don't think so, but it's hardly a distraction either. I can't imagine you loving The Peanuts Movie less seeing it in 2-D. The one sequences you may get a little extra thrill in 3-D is watching Snoopy's World War I Flying Ace dogfight the Red Baron in the clouds high above what I have to assume is Germany.

The most appropriate word to describe The Peanuts Movie is sweet. This might be the single sweetest film you'll see all year. Designed for children (with its G rating firmly in place) but knowing full well that nostalgia for Peanuts runs deep in older audiences as well, the movie works by staying faithful to what has always worked for these characters. If they make another one, they'll have to take a slightly different approach, but for this first big-screen outing, sticking with the classic model functions just great.

Victoria

It's no accident that when the end credits for German actor-turned-director Sebastian Schipper's Victoria begin, the first name to pop up after the film fades out is not that of the filmmaker, but that of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who somehow manages to pull off the no-longer-impossible: the entire movie consists of one, unbroken shot for roughly two hours and 15 minutes. And don't think for a second that the screenplay by Schipper, Olivia Neergaard-Holm, and Eike Frederik Schulz (although the specific dialogue is largely improvised) makes it easy on the cameraman to keep up with his subjects, who are nearly always moving, talking, running, getting chased, dancing and driving.

It's impossible to fathom how many times this film was shot or how infuriating it must have been when someone flubbed a line or missed a mark after an hour and a half. These thoughts will cross your mind for maybe the first 30 minutes, at which point you'll absolutely lose yourself in the gripping, real-time events in the heart of late night Berlin.

Spanish actress Laia Costa plays the titular character, a young woman living temporarily in Berlin — her German is not good and she spends a great deal of the film speaking in broken English. We meet her in a club, dancing alone, but ready to end her night out when she meets four young German men, one of whom — Sonne (Frederick Lau) — is flirting with her with some degree of success. While it may not seem the safest of ideas for a young woman to run around Berlin with four strangers, they seem harmless enough (at least with regards to her), and they race around the streets, drinking, getting to know each other and becoming friends.

The first hour of the film plays almost like a Before Sunrise-style romance between Victoria and Sonne, who eventually end up alone in the café in which she works and is scheduled to open in a couple hours, apparently on no sleep. But before anything touchy-feely happens, his three friends reappear having gotten a call from an acquaintance about a mysterious job that requires four people to carry out. With one of the four too drunk to function, Victoria volunteers to drive, into what, she isn't quite sure. And considering Sonne's friends have names like Boxer and Blinker, you know nothing good is about to happen.

Since it's essentially told from Victoria's perspective (she's rarely off screen), we get a sense that this is her adventure. She never truly thinks she's in any danger — partly because she doesn't understand German — until she actually having her life threatened by a random gangster and former prison friend of Boxer, who is paying back a protection debt by agreeing to pull off a bank robbery just as the employees are coming to work. Victoria is so game to do just about anything, that even audience members will feel the same false sense of confidence that she has that nothing truly awful will happen. But there are small clues scattered throughout the film — including a moment set at a piano — that indicate Victoria is running away from something in her native Madrid, and she's not quite sure (or perhaps doesn't care) where her life is headed — the perfect formula for reckless behavior.

One element that adds to the momentum and immediacy of Victoria is that it feels like it's always in motion, even when the characters are chilling on a roof drinking beer or otherwise being still. Shot across more than 20 locations (including a return to the club from the opening that sees the characters in a wildly different state of mind) but denying himself the luxury of editing, director Schipper has carefully crafted the flow of his narrative so that there is almost zero lag time between set pieces. Combined with an often pulsating, hypnotic score from Nils Frahm, the movie feels like it's breathing in our ear and that we share a heartbeat with the characters.

Watching a film dedicated to keeping things organic and special effects free, I'm still trying to figure out how the camera operator fit into the many cars Victoria squeezes us into, seemingly entering from the back seat but positioning himself in the dead center of the car so he can see all four seats by rotating slightly. But the film is far from just at technical masterpiece; it's a vital, aggressive beast that isn't afraid to leave its emotional edges exposed, allowing us to actually care about the fate of these characters. Imagine that. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Love

I'm a great admirer of the films of Gasper Noe, although most of them feel like he's hit you over the head with a sledgehammer to make a fairly obvious point. Still, the messages and themes of his works always resonate and stick with me long after I've seen them. I'm fairly certain that my brain and/or senses were damaged by some aspects of I Stand Alone, Irreversible and Enter the Void. His latest work is titled Love, and his approach, much like the title, is simple. Although it has been heralded as art-house porn, there's a great deal more going on here than simply explicit sex. Love is actually a tale of pure heartbreak after a whirlwind, passionate relationship between two 20-somethings seen and considered after the fact, which by no means diminishes the impact and residual pain of the male half of the pairing, Murphy (Karl Glusman).

Murphy is an American living in Paris, studying to become a filmmaker. As the movie opens, he and his new wife Omi (Klara Kristin) are awoken by a phone call, the voicemail from which Murphy eventually listens to, discovering it's from the mother of his ex-girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock), who has been missing for many weeks, and her mother is desperate for information. Murphy is clearly shaken by the news, although we're not entirely sure why. We also discover early on that Murphy and Omi have a 2-year-old child who was something of an accident, but they appear to have made the best of it.

At the first moment Murphy is alone in the apartment, he begins to remember (not necessarily in chronological order) the events of his time with the French Electra, from their meeting to the painful reasons their affair ended, and all the sex and drugs in between. Love is an exercise is capturing the raging, burning heat of young love/lust/passion/rage — it all blurs together for Noe, and it feels pretty much on the money. The film is most reminded me of was Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, which also featured graphic sex, interspersed with the couple at various concerts. And I guess in many ways, that defines young love — an almost constant soundtrack, punctuated by bouts of athletic sex.

The couple in Love is clearly the end-all connection of his life, even though he's a bit of meathead who barely hesitates when given the chance to cheat on Electra with a cute young neighbor. Electra is a would-be artist, with precarious ties in the art world, a place where Murphy never quite feels at home and is convinced that everyone wants to sleep with Electra. The film is a collection of tender moments and near-violent arguments that show us the chasms in their relationships long before they break up for good. And while Love does feature its fair share of fully nude, fully engorged bodies, there are also quite a few lower-key love scenes that don't insist on getting graphic.

Although he often takes the loud, painful way to get there, Noe's brand of storytelling often gets at the heart of his characters in unexpectedly moving ways. Here, the methods are perhaps his most conventional, but no less penetrating and revealing. The emotional core of his characters and their heightened awareness (they do a lot of drugs) is so exposed as to cause them a great deal of agonizing pain, but when they click, it's a tremendous buzz.

Love was shot in 3-D, but is mostly playing in 2-D across the country, and that's how I saw it. It's pretty easy to tell which scenes would have been particularly amusing with third-dimension, but let's just say, I don't need that in my face any more than 2-D provides, thank you. Love is skillfully crafted, lushly lit and photographed, and gets to the heart of the tumultuous ride that is young people with feelings for each other, and it's an experience I enjoyed reliving. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre; all screenings of Love at the Music Box will be presented in 2-D.

I Smile Back

When we meet Laney Brooks (Sarah Silverman) at the top of the addiction/depression drama I Smile Back, she's already deep into her issues with substance abuse and sleeping with men other than her husband, in this case the husband (Thomas Sadoski) of a family friend. To drive us more into the realm of being shocked by Laney's behavior, we find out she's married to Bruce (Josh Charles) with two young children. Based on the novel by Amy Koppelman (who also adapted with Paige Dylan), the film paints Bruce as a bit of a self-help douche bag, which I suppose is designed to make us think initially that Laney's behavior is a product of her home life. But before long, we learn that Laney is clinically depressed and numbing her pain with the tools at her disposal, the ones she knows best.

I Smile Back is not a great movie on the subject of depression or addiction — it oversimplifies, deals less with the root causes and more with the consequences (in this case, a broken family) — but regardless of what your reaction to the film is, the sheer dramatic perfection of Silverman's performance is impossible to deny. She reaches deep and places her heart and raw nerves on full display for Laney to stomp on, if she sees fit. All traces of the great comic stage performer are gone; Silverman's bag of tricks is empty, replaced by a stunning stand-alone accomplishment. Laney cares so little about what anyone (including the audience) thinks about her that she masturbates with her daughter's stuffed animal. It looks funny to see it typed out, but it plays out as pure, fearless tragedy.

Directed by Adam Salky (Dare), the movie makes it incredibly clear that it doesn't expect you to like Laney and her decisions or means of coping with depression, but it wants desperately for you to understand her to a degree. I Smile Back manages that about 50 percent of the time. By film's end, there's a half-hearted attempt on Laney's part to get her life and family back together, but by then, it may be too late and the damage may be permanent. The scenes of Laney's domestic life are quaint, a bit cliché, and never quite pop off the screen with the aftermath of her behavior the way you wish they would. While the sequences involving her self-destructive behavior are made to feel illicit, with a strange but interesting sense of titillation and revulsion. I wish the rest of the film were that interesting, but it's certainly worth seeking out for Silverman's gripping work. The film opens today in Chicago at the AMC River East 21 theaters.

To read my exclusive interview with I Smile Back star Sarah Silverman, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Radical Grace

One of my favorite documentaries from last month's Chicago International Film Festival was Radical Grace, wonderful work from first-time director Rebecca Parrish about a group of American Catholic nuns who have paved a bold course by backing feminist and social activist causes using grassroots methods, all the while really upsetting the centuries-long status quo of the Vatican. The nuns were such upstarts that the Church placed them under censure and investigation until it could be determined whether they were in line enough with the Vatican to stay a part of their order.

The film focuses on three particular nuns, who campaigned hard for the Affordable Care Act, and when the general public found out that their future as nuns was threatened, they received overwhelming support. Gone are the habits and other drab garments that we associate with nuns. Their weapons of choice are personality and a strong sense of right and wrong, dignity and grace, especially when it comes to women's rights. And with each new warning from the Vatican, the belief on their part that Jesus would back their causes grows stronger.

Just when they become convinced that their days as nuns is limited, the unexpected resignation of the highly conservative Pope Benedict XVI and eventual selection of the seemingly understanding Pope Francis gives the nuns hope that they may continue their important work. The nuns, all of whom are fairly old, make it clear that if they are stripped of their titles, they will still rage on as social justice warriors. The nuns make important spiritual journeys that double as means to get their messages out and drum up support.

Radical Grace is a remarkable profile in courage and kindness, and points out to church-going folks (and everyone else) that being religious or spiritual is not just about agreeing with like-minded types with a political agenda; it's meant to be about looking out for those being oppressed or who are otherwise suffering. The nuns featured in this film are a special type of hero, and trust me when I say, you want them on your side.

Radical Grace opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center, where an array of special guests (including filmmaker Rebecca Parrish) will be doing various post-screening discussions after many screenings throughout the week. Go to the Film Center's website for details.

 
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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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