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Column Fri Nov 13 2015

The 33, Spotlight, Trumbo, Brooklyn, By the Sea, Heart of a Dog & Madam Phung's Last Journey

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The 33

This telling of the real-life ordeal surrounding 33 miners trapped in an underground Chilean gold and copper mine for 69 days is a crowded affair, both in terms of the sheer number of cast members and the various plotlines merging into one. But ultimately, director Patricia Riggen (Girl In Progress) does as strong a job directing traffic as she does creating a finished work that is an intense, claustrophobic, and highly emotional journey.

There's a bit of backstory that shows a number of the soon-to-be-trapped miners hanging out at a barbecue at one of their homes the day before the collapse. The spirit and jovial, slightly drunken, and it's clear that a bit part of what kept these men alive was a long-standing friendship and a belief that no one person was out just for himself. It's established fairly quickly that the company that owns the mine was aware of safety issues and had no interest in fixing or even looking into any possible problems. So when the mine's entire infrastructure — which includes an extensive road system big enough for large mining vehicles to drive around, as well as offices — collapses, trapping all 33 miners (the fact that no one died in the collapse is astonishing to begin with), it's not exactly a surprise to the man in charge of safety, Don Lucho (Lou Diamond Phillips), who fought every day with the company to get improvements made.

It soon becomes clear that due to negligence, food and water supplies are drastically low, the ladders that are meant to go straight up to the top of the mine are only half built, and there is no means of communication with the world above. The decision is made to ration the food as best they can and hope that rescuers find them soon. With no real way of knowing the miners are alive, the paltry rescue mission involving sending a drill straight down toward the structure's safe room (where the miners actually are) and hoping it doesn't veer off course to such a degree that it misses the room. And it's not spoiling anything to say that, the room is found and at least food, water, air, and a means of talking to the miners can be arranged. And seeing as they're found in a matter of days, that doesn't exactly mean get rescued right away — not even close.

Riggen also spends a fair amount of time with some of the passionate family members to congregate outside the fence of the mining property waiting for any word from anyone. Among the more vocal in the crowd is Juliette Binoche's Maria Segovia, whose bother Dario (Juan Pablo Raba) is a drug addict, forced to go through a nasty bout of detox underground. Rodrigo Santoro portrays Laurence Golborne, who is that rarest of birds — the high-level government worker who actually has the best interests of the miners and their families in mind, and it is he who brings in the noted mine rescuer Andre Sougarret (Gabriel Bryne) and is better for it.

As the miners' time underground grows longer by weeks rather than days, an Ace in the Hole-style circus of souvenir sellers, media types and just the plain curious begin to descend on the small community, tracking the various rescue attempts, which seem to hinge on making a hole big enough for the miners to come out of. After a handful of failed attempts, a boring device (as in, a device that bores holes) brought in by the American Jeff Hart (James Brolin) seems to have the stuff to complete the work that other equipment simply failed to make happen.

If you go into The 33 already knowing the fate of these miners, then you only know a fraction of the true story. The odds are you aren't aware of just how tense things got below the surface or above; how close the rescuers were to calling off the search initially; how deeply significant pressure from friends and families was in forcing the government's hand to finance a rescue; or how dangerous the actual extraction of the miners truly was. The film covers it all, and it does so pretty thoroughly and with a keen sense of uncovering the dramatic value giving everyone involved a voice. The greatest villain in the film isn't the mountain and all of its perils; it's bureaucracy and the laziness it inspires.

All credit due to director Riggen, who takes a film that is being described at "the one about the Chilean miners" and expanding the scope to tell so much more of the story to add drama to a tale whose ending is fairly well known. And she manages to do so without making the miners' story any less interesting or vital. The miners' fates are not the entirety of this journey, and the filmmakers make that clear and interesting.

To read my exclusive interview with The 33 director Patricia Riggen, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Spotlight

My greatest fear when it comes to easily one of the finest-made films of the year, director Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, is that the unsavory nature of the story may keep people from checking it out. If that's currently your line of thinking, congratulations, you don't give a shit about quality movies. For those into checking out the best films made in a given year, Spotlight centers on the ruthless team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the systematic cover-up by the highest-ranking members of the region's Catholic church leadership of a shocking number of pedophile priests, who were simply shifted around from parish to parish rather than kicked out or brought up on any criminal charges.

The film is not about the uncovering of these priest per se, since vague allegations and accusations had been rumbling throughout Boston for years. What made the Spotlight team's year-long digging and resulting stories so important was the depth of the cover-up, which extended far into the legal community and the local government, in addition to ranking members of the Vatican, including Boston's Cardinal Law. What McCarthy as director and co-writer (along with Josh Singer) does with his film is painstakingly reveal the journalistic process that went into this Pulitzer Prize-winning series, resulting in one of the most breathtaking thrillers in recent memory.

The investigation began at an interesting time for the Globe, with a new editor taking over — Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) from Miami — and the team under fire for taking so long to generate stories (six to 12 months in many cases) and the possibility of cuts at the paper always a danger as the internet grew more popular at the turn of the 21st century. It's interesting to note how many times someone in a defensive position in this film brings up Barron being Jewish, as if to imply that his not being Christian is somehow behind his wanting to bring down the church with these stories. Other members of the team include its leader Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). It's impossible not to see the film as the modern-day equivalent to All the President's Men, especially with the presence of Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), son on the Washington Post editor who oversaw the Watergate investigation.

There is something so pure and riveting about watching the slow unveiling of the truth on film. I'm sure timelines were compressed and certainly bad leads are edited out of the story, but what remains is a fascinating look at smart people doing their jobs well, being tenacious about finding the truth, and questions how much of a stranglehold one institution has on a community. Seeing Rezendes pursue lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), representing grown victims of these priest, to not only interview but gain his trust enough with the information to bring him willing clients to talk about these allegations, is captivating beyond words. Not surprisingly Ruffalo shines as the emotional focal point of the team, and his driving motivation seems to be the understanding that he could have easily been one of these victims.

One of the most interesting sections of the film occurs when the investigation is put on hold after 9/11 so that the team could focus its attentions on digging into the backgrounds on the terrorists (remember that two of the hijacked planes took off from Boston's Logan Airport). It's actually refreshing to see 9/11 serve as a backdrop to this story, to remind us that we're watching something that happened nearly 15 years ago and giving it a context and a sense of where the nation was in terms of letting people get away with evil deeds.

Naturally the question of finances comes into play in the investigation, and a great deal of money was funneled from the church to an army of lawyers dealing with (i.e. burying) this accusations. Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan play two such attorneys who have found a way to sweep these unspeakable crimes under the rug and still sleep at night.

Director McCarthy has a solid foundation of filmmaking that includes The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win-Win — but his CV also includes a not-so-stellar little movie called The Cobbler, which came out earlier this year. The idea that he may have director both the best and worst movie of 2015 seems extraordinary, but it also reminds us that it's dangerous to condemn a filmmaker based solely on his failures.

In many ways, Spotlight is also a nostalgic look at an era and level of investigative journalism that is fading fast, due to shrinking budgets and poor newspaper readership (thanks again, internet). One almost gets the sense, in just the 13 years since the original story was published, that this level of in-depth coverage might not be possible today. If the film is pushing an agenda, it's not about the church; it's about allowing journalists the time and resources to work under these conditions. There are a few races against the clock, but for the most part, Spotlight manages to tell its haunting story without artificially ramping up the suspense and heightening the danger. Sometimes the truth is the thing that should cause us the greatest anxiety in life, and the film seems as interesting in being honest as it does in talking about revealing the facts. Spotlight a magnificent achievement in storytelling and pure filmmaking. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Trumbo

If you're at all familiar with the story and career of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo — most likely from either the 2007 documentary Trumbo, or from the Bruce Cook-written book that inspired this film — then you know that he often used a wry, intelligent humor to get his point across in both his scripts and in his conversation. One of the first things that struck me about Trumbo, the latest biography of his years on the notorious and unforgiving "blacklist," is that John McNamara's sharp and quite often funny screenplay uses a similar approach to telling its story as well. Humor is used not to defuse the drama but to underscore it — an approach similar to what director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents) used in his HBO films Recount and Game Change, both about recent U.S. elections.

When the film begins, Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is made the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood after a string of much-praised works, such as A Guy Named Joe and Kitty Foyle. But he was also an admitted communist at a time in America when such things were aggressively looked down upon as traitorous by such influential people as actor John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (a truly nasty turn by Helen Mirren), who were in the early stages of pulling together an organization in Hollywood that would police its ranks to make certain there was no communist infiltration by the likes of writers like Trumbo and other screenwriters later known as the Hollywood 10, represented in this film primarily by the composite character Arlen Hird (a magnificently tragic performance by Louis C.K.).

Almost as soon as he is placed on the blacklist (after a year in prison for contempt of Congress), Trumbo begins seeking out work on the black market, either writing under aliases or giving his scripts to non-blacklisted writers, giving them the credit, and splitting the payday, as he did with Roman Holiday (credited to Ian McLellan Hunter, played by Alan Tudyk), which ended up winning three Oscars, including Best Screenplay. I think it's safe to say that Trumbo worked harder and produced more scripts (ones that he wrote from scratch or gave a hard polish) while on the blacklist than when he wasn't. Many of these scripts (none credited to him) he did for the schlock production house run by Frank and Hymie King (John Goodman and Stephen Root, respectively), who cared only about output but actually ended up with great scripts by Trumbo and his blacklisted friends.

The film manages to capture the absolute chaos and endless nights of work Trumbo had to endure to get the work done on time, and the toll it took on his family, including wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and eldest daughter Niki (played from about mid-teens on by Elle Fanning). If I spot the film one major flaw, it's that I wish there was more about the price the family paid as a result of both the blacklisting of the patriarch and the long hours he put in to keep a roof over their heads. Here, they are portrayed as being almost unilaterally supportive — with a few blow-ups here and there — but I'm guessing the truth was somewhere in between. Still, the assembly-line efficiency of their home — playing host to several fictional writers (all of them Trumbo) — is impressive.

To think that Trumbo managed to write all of the screenplays without anyone knowing is foolish. Rumors spread about the Oscar win, and only three years later, when a little passion piece Trumbo had written (under the name Robert Rich), entitled The Brave One, won the same screenplay Oscar, the blacklist's effectiveness seemed downright absurd. Before long, figures like Kirk Douglas (with an unwieldy Spartacus script under his arm) and director Otto Preminger (with a mere outline for Exodus) began knocking on Trumbo's door, ready to not only hire him but give him a screen credit.

Trumbo is not just a political history lesson; it's a trip through old Hollywood that is as entertaining as it is poignant. One of the core relationships in Trumbo's life was his seemingly unbreakable friendship with actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), who ended up on the blacklist for a time until he testified and named names. In their final confrontation, Robinson makes a familiar and important statement about the difference between actors and writers — actors can't get work by hiding behind aliases the way Trumbo did as a writer. In order to keep working, he had to cooperate. It's a heartbreaking moment in the film, and one of its finest scenes as well.

Dalton Trumbo was a man so loaded with eccentricities that he had to be real, because if you'd written him the way he actually was, no one would believe he wasn't a writer's creation. He typically wrote in the bathtub (often for hours), hunting and pecking his typewriter, cutting up script pages and taping them together in the order he wanted the lines and scenes. He had affectations and a look that seemed straight out nutty professor central casting and a theatrical delivery that made everything he said seemed "chiseled into rock," as one character puts it. Cranston's work in Trumbo is sublime, and having seen the film twice, I noticed smaller affectations the second time, beyond the broader ones — little tics when he's tired or popping too many pills to stay awake. Or the way he transforms into a bullying monster to his family when he's especially stressed. It's a magnificent transformation from Cranston, whose abilities and range we're only beginning to recognize.

Trumbo isn't going for big dramatic moments, although there are a few scattered throughout the film, certainly. It exists to underscore the dangers of policing thought and the near farcical situation that existed in the Hollywood writing world as a result of a blacklist that helped to uncover exactly zero criminals against conspiracies to the American government or way of life. The film finds its strength in using humor as a weapon to combat this tyranny and false display of patriotism, and I believe as you watch the film, you'll be able to think of modern-day parallels to both the oppressors and the ones who laugh in their face. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Brooklyn

Look at it as the lighter side of The Immigrant, the new film from director John Crowley (Intermission, Boy A, Closed Circuit), Brooklyn, tells the story of young Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish lass who boldly leaves the safe and predictable life in her mother's home for a new life in 1950s New York City. Although her biggest hardships in the Brooklyn boarding house she's staying in (run by Julie Walters) are being homesick and having an overly strict boss (played by Jessica Pare, from "Mad Men") at her retail job, all seems to be made easier for her to endure when she meets a young Italian fellow named Tony (Emory Cohen, from A Place Beyond the Pines) and the two start to fall in love.

Working from an elegant adaptation by Nick Hornby (the High Fidelity author, who also adapted last year's Wild and An Education) of the novel by Colm Tóibín, director Crowley takes his time building up a sense of time and place, without rushing us through the story or getting us buried in the politics or events of the time, which have little bearing on this very personal story. While it's clear this romance is important to Eilis, she has her somewhat vague plan for her life in America completely upended when she receives rather devastating news that requires her to return to her hometown. In a sign of commitment to return to her life and love in America, Eilis marries Tony just before she leaves for what she thinks will be a couple of weeks back in Ireland.

Naturally, personal commitments and a sense of duty to those who were good to her and her family keep her in Ireland for much longer, and she ends up getting involved in a heavy flirtation with an old acquaintance from the neighborhood, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson), who has no idea she's married — nor does anyone else, since Eilis conveniently doesn't mention it to anybody. Perhaps a bit too obviously, Hornby uses Eilis' being torn between two men as a metaphor for her being torn between two lands, but that doesn't take away from the difficult decision she must make being the familiar and comforting trapping of home and the happiness she left back in the States. Ronan carries it off beautifully and gracefully, playing Eilis as someone who alternates between utterly fragile and ferociously unbreakable.

Brooklyn allows us to share in Eilis's longing for both countries, but she also makes it clear that she doesn't need either to feel fulfilled. This is a film about the tribulations of the heart that manages to stay unsentimental by simply laying out the dilemma and allowing our heroine a few extra moments to contemplate her options as well as her desires. In addition to Ronan's positively piercing work, I was particularly impressed with Cohen's humble take on Tony, a plumber with a large, obnoxious family and more soul than anyone else in this movie. Throw in a little Jim Broadbent as an Irish priest living in America who advises Eilis, and you've got yourself a nice little cheek pinch of a movie that has a full appreciation for what a mature love story should be. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

By the Sea

It's clear almost from the first frames of By the Sea that writer-director-star Angelina Jolie Pitt is going for the look and feel of a European film from the 1960s or '70s. Some of the more lush works of Michelangelo Antonioni come to mind, but certainly not at the exclusion of other contemplative filmmakers of the period. Jolie Pitt is going for something thought-provoking, so much so that she's practically reading you a list of things she'd like audiences to be contemplating as they leave this relationship drama in which she co-stars with real-life husband Brad Pitt, as a troubled couple vacationing at a seaside resort in France circa the 1970s. As a struggling writer, Roland is there to work or find inspiration to work; Vanessa is there to recover from an unknown hardship that is threatening to destroy their marriage.

The location is breathtaking, from the winding roads that lead into the small community to the tranquil waters that lap up on the road right in front of the stunning hotel in which they're staying. At first, the two barely speak to each other. He seems to want to engage her and do relaxing, vacation-like things with her; she wants to be alone. So instead of write, he goes the local bar, run by Michel (Niels Arestrup), and drinks far too much, allegedly as part of his writing process. He's seeking inspiration. It's clear that Vanessa is in a great deal of pain, but we don't find out specifically why until late in the film. did Roland cheat or do something else unforgivable? Did she, and she simply can't forgive herself? It's a mystery that I'm not certain needed to be one to make this story more interesting.

The couple gingerly dance around each other, barely communicating and finding any excuse to bicker. But then something shifts when a young newlywed couple occupies the room next door, and it just so happens that a small pipe along the lower edges of the wall between the two rooms allows Jolie to spy on the other couple without being noticed. And watching them stirs something in her, reminding her of a much happier time in her life and marriage. Even better, Roland has been spying on the newlyweds as well, and as you know, the couple that peeps together sleeps together. Suddenly, these seemingly doomed spouses find a common interest and begin to get a little hot for each other in the process.

Eventually, the two couples meet and talk in various pairings. Lea (Mélanie Laurent) and François (Melvil Poupaud) are fairly easy going and find this somewhat bitter and cynical older couple difficult to establish a bond with, but still an endless source of fascination. The balance among these four characters shifts, becomes awkward and devolves with each new encounter until it becomes clear that Vanessa has an ulterior motivations in becoming friendly.

Certainly a far (and more interesting) cry from Jolie's last directed film, Unbroken, By the Sea is a stunningly beautiful, often fascinating misfire that asks us to care about characters who are simply un-relatable, which is not the same as unlikable (although not so much in this film). Our natural inclination is to care about this long-suffering couple and wish strong enough for them to find a common, loving ground. But with each new scene, one of them (usually Vanessa) does something just doesn't make sense even for a character as built for misery as she is. Let's face it: we love it when beautiful people suffer, and this film has that in spades. But even when we finally find out what went wrong in this coupling, it doesn't explain or excuse all the foolishness these two put themselves and each other through.

There are certainly passages of By the Sea that are beautifully written, wonderfully observed, highly erotic, and curious enough to certainly keep me from being bored. But about two-thirds of the way through this, I stopped caring and realized that the eventual emotional outpouring that was sure to conclude the film wouldn't move me at all because I didn't care what happened to these self-obsessed creatures who seemed to live off of each other's agony like it was oxygen. The film is without a doubt one of the most interesting failures of the year, but it's still a mess of the highest order. It opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Heart of a Dog

Part profile of a beloved pet, part examination of the grieving process, part therapy session about a tension-filled childhood, part thesis on language, part philosophy class, and part experimental meshing of creative elements, including music, home movies, video diaries, re-creations and archival images, Heart of a Dog is an aesthetic triumph that gives voice to director Laurie Anderson's contemplations of death, relationships, family, and the decision to grieve over a loss or not. Long known as a musician and performance artist, Anderson dalliances into filmmaking are rather limited since she emerged as a creative force in the late 1970s.

Despite the film being partly about the loss of a loved one, audiences looking for insight into the recent death of Anderson's husband Lou Reed are in for a disappointment. Heart of a Dog is most certainly not a film about his death masquerading as a work about her beloved rat terrier Lolabelle, who died in 2011. Anderson relays fascinating stories of Lolabelle's gradual breakdown — the dog went blind early on in her decline, and the filmmaker's observations about her behavior after this are both devastating and uplifting in many ways. But Anderson is also curious about why she reacts to certain things in specific ways, and this leads her down a path into her relationship with her parents — with a father she adored and a mother she's fairly certain did not love her. She also discusses various religious outlooks on death and grieving, without necessarily playing favorites or cuing us into which she used to cope with her loss.

What becomes apparent early in Heart of a Dog is that Anderson is using pieces of her life as the building blocks for this scrapbook of a film, and while it's clear certain sections were shot specifically for this project (in particular, the re-creations), even those are meant to be representations of her memories that have no visual components. Anderson also acts as her own narrator, using a sing-song, fairy-tale-telling cadence that she may not even be aware of, but it adds an other-worldly quality to the proceedings that makes this unique as a documentary experience. There's a great, wise humor to the entire work that keeps things from become too much of a downer. In fact, if anyone cries during this movie, I believe Anderson will think she has failed.

Heart of a Dog is meant to celebrate a life, rather than mourn its passing, and while many people often attempt such things at wakes and memorials of the recently deceased, Anderson pulls it off with a rich, gorgeously shot film that feels like it partly takes place in a hazy, dream-like state between life and the beyond. It's powerful without being dramatic, moving without resorting to overt sentimentality, and I'm guessing that while watching it, you'll be smiling more often than not. There's nothing else like this one, I promise you. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Madam Phung's Last Journey

In one of the strangest and most moving trips I've ever taken in a documentary, Madam Phung's Last Journey follows a group of traveling performers — most of whom are gay and either cross dressers or transgender — led by the strange and wonderful Madam Phung, who acts as caring mother, ruthless businesswoman, and protective lioness for her fellow performers. The caravan-style procession they take down the back roads of some of Vietnam's poorest villages makes the entire group resemble the carney crews of Depression-era America. With an emphasis on games of chance and concerts features Phung and others, this carnival seems to attract the curious, bi-curious, and homophobes alike, with the group's members getting hit on as often as they get hit by drunken hooligans.

The entire scenes has an undercurrent of both the comfort of family and the sadness of being looked at as freaks by many members of their audience. Phung's stories of loves lost and stashes of gold hidden at various stops on their route are the glue that holds the film together; whether any of it is true or not isn't really the point. She tells tales of former lovers as gracefully and amusingly as she talks about cracking skulls to protect herself from attackers. Whatever the truth is, it's clear she has known great triumphs and pain in her life, and a long life on the road has taken its toll on her health (sadly, the title of the film is a little too on the nose).

First-time director Tham Nguyen Thi gets incredible access to the performers, not just with interviews but quieter moments when they are dressing, putting on makeup or otherwise preparing for a show. But there are also exchanges over far too many drinks in someone's crowded trailer where ferocious arguments break out one night, only to be forgotten by morning. Madam Phung's Last Journey feels like a head-first glimpse into a life that we'll likely never see portrayed on screen again. The filmmaker has a true gift for keeping an objecctive distance while still showing a tremendous amount of compassion for these performers and their craft. With each new face we are introduced to, we are drawn in and made to feel a part of the crew, even when it faces the ugliest types of bigotry and fear that the world has to offer. The film opens today in Chicago at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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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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