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Column Thu Nov 26 2015

The Good Dinosaur, Creed, Victor Frankenstein, Legend, A Ballerina's Tale, The Wonders, In Jackson Heights, Tab Hunter Confidential & The Creeping Garden


The Good Dinosaur

The first person to compare or disparage Pixar's The Good Dinosaur because it somehow doesn't stack up to the studio's release earlier this year, Inside Out, is going to get a smack. You can write a 100-page dissertation on the complexities and themes of Inside Out and still have a whole lot more to say.

But The Good Dinosaur is an entirely different and hilariously bizarre beast, literally. To start, there are far simpler and more basic ideas at play, but they are ones that are in desperate need of being emphasized today. This is a story about friendship, family, overcoming fear, loss and home, and the film somehow covers all of that without getting schmaltzy or overly sentimental. And in true Pixar spirit, it also manages to be creative, original and a pure joy to simply sit back and soak in some of the most realistic-looking landscapes ever created using computers. The water, trees, rocks, all things natural look so real, you almost wonder if the artist simply rendered the characters over nature documentaries (not really, but I bet it crosses your mind).

In fairly stark contrast, the character designs of The Good Dinosaur are not meant to look real, and the contrast makes sense because if everything looked real, nothing would stand out the way these unique characters do. The premise of the film is that there was no catastrophic event in Earth's history (such as an asteroid) to wipe out the dinosaurs, so they simply continued to evolve for millions of years. The characters here aren't meant to look like dinosaurs we know. There are snakes with tiny legs, pterodactyl-like creatures with more traditional bird-like qualities, the T-rex characters have longer arms, softer features and wrangle longhorn bison (more on that later).

The film focuses on a family of apatosaurus, led by parents voiced by Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand, who have three children, including the runt of the litter, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), who is afraid of every loud noise or sudden movement that comes his way, and it's a source of constant frustration for his family, who encourage him to be less afraid, to no avail. In this dinosaur world, the creatures not only talk, they also build, grow crops and otherwise maintain farms so that they have enough food for the winter. If you don't believe in evolution, you're going to have a very tough time with this movie, because as ridiculous as it sounds that dinosaurs would do these things, when you see it play out, it's kind of great and weirdly sensible, perhaps even plausible.

Through a series of tragedies and mishaps, Arlo is separated from his family, and he must begin the long journey home, with the assistance of a primative human boy he names Spot (Jack Bright), who doesn't speak and is more like a pet dog than anything else, but he's resourceful and can track anything. In what is essentially a road movie, The Good Dinosaur is best when it allows Arlo a chance to test his limits. Fear still rules his life, but he's also forced to realize that he'll never get back to see his family if he doesn't overcome it. Certainly, watching Spot race into dangerous situations time and time again makes that a lot easier for Arlo. And there is no getting around that watching this pair together is about as adorable as it gets.

Long-time Pixar artist, storyboardist, and voice talent Peter Sohn (who also directed the Partly Cloudy short) marks his feature directing debut here and succeeds largely because he keeps things simple: Arlo and Spot are on a journey, along the way they meet a variety of bizarre characters that are strange mashups of animals we know and dinosaurs, and Arlo begins to get the confidence he needs to survive in his harsh world. A great deal of credit also goes to screenwriter Meg LeFauve (co-writer of Inside Out, who also gets one of four story credits on this film), who allows the two main characters to grow slowly with each new encounter.

Two of the best meetups are with a group of trippy and hungry bird-like dinos led by Thunderclap (Steve Zahn), a demented creature who doesn't believe he'll go hungry because so many new eating opportunities come with each new major storm (his favorite saying is "The storm provides" — you can almost hear Jeff Bridges saying it). But the most enjoyable exchange happens with T-Rex Butch (Sam Elliott) and his two kids Nash (A.J. Buckley) and Ramsey (Anna Paquin), who rustle long-horned bison and dish out cowboy wisdom (and directions) to Arlo.

Although there are moments when Arlo tends to overtalk, there are also long sections of the film with no dialogue — easy to pull off when one of your leads doesn't speak. The Good Dinosaur has one of the biggest hearts of any Pixar film, and there's are back-to-back scenes at the end that will likely have you sniffling. I've certainly seen my fair share of gooey-eyed, overly emotional animated films in recent years, but this ain't that. Nor is it a film that is as squarely aimed at children as you might believe from some of the character designs. There's a mild element of violence (if animals eating other animals counts), and there's even a sequence where Arlo and Spot eat some slightly spoiled fruit and start tripping, which might be the funniest scene in the movie.

As always, there's also an absolutely fantastic short prior to the feature. Sanjay's Super Team is a cultural alternative to the current rash of superhero films, directed by the great animator Sanjay Patel. The Good Dinosaur is a classic example of what Pixar can do when it doesn't feel the need to pander to either its younger or older audiences. It delivers the perfect blend of laughs, tears and life lessons, and features visuals that are at times impossible to believe. I can easily see myself pausing the blu-ray to look at details in a waterfall or tree branch or mountain range or clouds or insects. So much of the film works that it simply doesn't matter that it might not be the best Pixar has ever done. It's still better than most of the animated films I endure each year, and that made it even easier to fall in love with.


I'm not going to bother going through the history of the Rocky movies, or ranking them in order of which is best, worst, etc., or giving you my personal connection to the franchise that has stretched across 40 years and six previous films. And the reason I'm not going to do any of that is because none of it is necessary to fully enjoy the latest, perhaps most unexpected chapter of the Rocky Balboa story, Creed, the brainchild of Fruitvale Station writer-director Ryan Coogler (who co-wrote this screenplay with Aaron Covington), who takes small portions of the previous films, and rather than simply retreading familiar ground, uses them as building blocks and touchstone to build an original story about a young, wayward man seeking to build a family around him after feeling alone and isolated for his entire life. Wait, did I say this was an original story?

When we meet young Adonis Johnson, he's still a kid, getting thrown into juvenile detention and getting bailed out by Apollo Creed's widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Turns out Adonis is the illegitimate son of Apollo, who slept with Adonis's mother and died in the ring before he was born. Desperate to have a part of Apollo still living and breathing in her life, Mary Anne adopts Adonis and sets his life on the straight and narrow, making sure he gets a good education and job near her home in Los Angeles. Turns out working in the financial sector isn't enough for grown Adonis (played by Coogler's Fruitvale partner Michael B. Jordan), and he spends his weekends secretly boxing semi-professionally in Mexico, where he is apparently kicking ass.

Hungry for more than a desk job could ever given him, Adonis (frequently referred to as Donny) decides he wants to pursue boxing as a career, and presumably having learned all he can from his adoptive mother about Apollo as a man, he heads to Philadelphia to learn what he can about him as a boxer from the man who knew him best in that arena. Donny's first meeting with Rocky (an older and wiser Sylvester Stallone) is a quiet one, in Rocky's restaurant, talking about old times. At first, Rocky doesn't know who this young man with all the questions is, but once it's revealed, it's a warm exchange, ending with Donny asking Rocky to train him.

It's an interesting request for Rocky and the audience, since the previous film, Rocky Balboa, was about hanging up the gloves, both for the Stallone and the character. But what's wonderful about Creed is that it doesn't violate the emotional pact that Stallone made when retiring Rocky. This isn't about the Italian Stallion making a comeback. When he finally, begrudgingly agrees to help Donny out, he stays very much outside the ring, working with other trainers, and coming up with a regimen for Donny that will prepare him mentally and physically for his first fight. Cue the training montage.

And while Donny works his ass off at the gym, he begins to open up to the company of others at his rundown apartment, especially Bianca (Tessa Thompson from Dear White People and Selma), a lovely musician living below him who seems captivated by his drive and put off when Donny's hair-trigger temper rises to the surface at even the slightest perception of his honor being insulted. The Creed love story could have a major distraction in an already lengthy film, but Coogler has dared to insert a relationship of substance in this film that has nothing to do with physical accomplishments. Rocky is constantly drilling into Donny's head the idea that the toughest opponent he will ever face is the guy staring back at him in the mirror. Mental strength is just as important, if not more so, as physical prowess, and it's clear that Bianca is good for his mind (and maybe his body, a little bit). What's even more enjoyable and unexpected is the way Rocky, Donny and Bianca come together as a family. They each see that together they make each other stronger, and some of the film's best scenes involve simple sit-down meals at Rocky's place and a few laughs among new friends.

In many ways, the boxing in Creed is less important than the character building, and not just for Donny. After winning his first professional fight in the United States quite decisively, the curious press finds out that Donny is actually Apollo's blood (he's been fighting and living using the Johnson name). As a result of this reveal, Donny is called upon to fight the current Light Heavyweight Champion "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, a nasty piece of Liverpool-born fighter (played by real-life boxer Tony "Bomber" Bellew), just before he goes to jail for many years. Conlan is looking for once last massive payday to help take care of his family before he heads to prison, and when his original opponent is injured (at Conlan's hands) during a pre-fight press conference, the promoter thinks having the Creed name in the ring and Balboa in the corner will help boost ticket sales and viewership.

In an unexpected turn, Coogler requires Rocky to fight one last time, not in the ring, but for his life. In a turn that will have men and women reaching for the Kleenex, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer, something which terrifies him so much (his wife Adrian died of cancer as well) that he refuses to get treatment because he associates Adrian's treatment with hastening her passing. But when Donny pushes Balboa to take on the cancer — in the same way he is taking on Conlan — the film transforms into a story of survival for both men, in and out of the ring. I was genuinely stunned how old, sickly and decrepit Stallone allows himself to get in this portion of the film. His chemotherapy results in all the side effects you'd expect, and before long Rocky's gone totally grey and his hair begins to fall out. As I mentioned, the best parts of Creed are not in the ring, but are in the performances of Stallone and Jordan, as they struggle with their individual demons, which are actually quite similar.

Which is not to say that Coogler doesn't give us some truly exceptional fighting sequences. Donny's first fight is an incredible sequence, done is a single take — from the locker room to the knockout. I've never seen anything like it, and I would plead with the director to include some kind of Making Of extra on the blu-ray of just that sequence. The artistry is beyond stunning. The second, much longer conflict is shot more conventionally, but it remains a brutal exchange between two very different fighters, who are still quite evenly matched. Coogler is smart to show us just how their unique fighting styles lead to an extended conflict, with each man refusing to stay down. It's an exhausting, bloody battle that will feel occasionally familiar to fans of the first Rocky film.

Coogler drops in fun and touching references and homages to the earlier films, but he never lingers and relies on them to tell his story. Particular locations will be familiar, a joke Rocky makes about the way Donny does push-ups is very funny, a trip to the cemetery to visit Adrian and late best friend (and brother-in-law) Paulie is a nice callback, and even Donny's swollen-shut eye in the final fight strikes a chord. But it's a slow and wobbly climb up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum with the subtle piano version of the original Rocky theme song that got me right in the gut and gave me chills. It's a rare moment of pure beauty in this otherwise fairly gritty film, and the words that Rocky says to Adonis/Donny once they make it to the top sum up the series with an abundance of grace.

I've made it through the entire review and barely mentioned Jordan's acting, which is, not surprisingly, great. Jordan has nothing to prove with this film, which almost makes his commitment to the physical, as well as emotional, components all the more impressive. Donny is a character that embodies the best and worst parts of Apollo Creed without becoming him entirely. He also embraces the zen-like demeanor of his trainer, while exhibiting the fortitude of a boxer that can both go the distance and embrace the idea that there's always room for improvement. That's a big part of what the Rocky films have been about. This was never a series about who was tougher. Rocky was a man who wanted a full life, and was willing to take a few punches if it meant having that. In the end, Rocky isn't teaching Creed's son how to box; he's teaching him how to live. That's a message I'd like to leave every film embracing.

Victor Frankenstein

Why is everyone in Victor Frankenstein yelling all the time? If someone can explain that to me, I'd probably be able to make sense of the rest of the film, which concerns itself with the pairing of the brilliant and warped scientist, Victor (James McAvoy), and his equally knowledgeable assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a former circus hunchback/clown whom young Frankenstein rescues and takes under his scientific wing. Yes, this is Frankenstein: The University Years, as Victor is still a medical student being mocked by his peers and bullied by his father (Charles Dance) to stick to more conventional doctoring — a far cry from Mary Shelley's original text, to be sure.

Because this is an age where curiosity isn't enough of a reason to seek bringing dead flesh back to life, screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle, American Ultra) has created an elaborate backstory for Frankenstein that explains why he's so obsessed with these grotesque experiments — and if you guessed it has something to do with someone who's dead, you win; but I won't reveal the Big Secret. Still, the deepest flaw with Victor Frankenstein isn't the story; it's McAvoy's performance, which seem fueled by nitroglycerin. If he's awake, then odds are he's striding across the room, arms extended, belting out dialogue to the furthest corners of the hemisphere like some sort of deranged ringmaster, usually only talking to one man, Igor.

He resides in a rundown building with a secret laboratory in the basement, leaving Igor to complete his small but important tasks in the more public lab (should the police decide to visit, which they do). Igor is a slightly more well-rounded character. During his time as a circus hunchback, he found himself capable of deep thought and he acquired a great deal of medical knowledge from textbooks collected on the road. He also fell for a trapeze artist named Lorelei (Jessica Brown Findlay, formerly of "Downton Abbey"), who is severely injured in a fall, only to be brought back from the brink of death with the help of Igor and his soon-to-be boss.

One of the better realized moments in the story involves Frankenstein's first experiment bringing a creature back from the dead — in this case, a "pile of meat" made up of organs and limbs from dozens of different animals (mostly primates) — that is still somehow able to struggle to its feet and attack several people in the operating theater at the college where it's brought to life. It's a nasty, misshapen creature that somehow still manages to elicit sympathy because it's clear that it's in pain and horribly confused about its surrounds or what it even is. The moment is ruined somewhat when it bolts out of the room and the humans must give chase, but for a brief moment, the film manages to have a flicker of emotional content.

Since the point of the film is not about the eventual creation of a human brought back from the dead (although such a cartoonishly large version of the monster does appear in the finale), the film's real villains are twofold — Frankenstein's benefactor, Finnegan (Freddie Fox), a fellow medical student and rich kid who wants the technology Victor is working on to create a new kind of slave; and the bible-thumping Inspector Turpin (Andrew Scott, recently seen as "C" in Spectre, and frequently seen as Moriarty in the "Sherlock" series), who sees these experiments as an affront to God. Director Paul McGuigan (several "Sherlock" episodes, as well as Push, Lucky Number Slevin, Wicker Park) seems to have a tough time figuring out what is the most/least interesting area of this movie to point his cameras toward. Radcliffe's Igor would be the obvious choice, but he's so often playing a passive role as the grateful servant that he ends up not being especially interesting.

The only thing that generates a few sparks in Victor Frankenstein are the actual sparks that power the various creatures that come to life. The final sequence is so unsure of itself, it falls back on fire, explosions, rain, thunder, lightning, falling equipment, and a knock-down, drag-out battle between the newly born creature and its human creators. This headache-inducing brawl is sloppy, loud, flashy and ultimately dull as wood. Opening with an elaborate foot chase that feels added in, and closing with flashing lights, a big generic monster (including a flat head), and, sure, let's throw in a not-so-subtle Young Frankenstein reference, and you get a patchwork creature of a film that wouldn't exist without pilfering from a hundred other monster movies before it. This version of the Frankenstein story simply has no spark and left me feeling lifeless.


There will come a point while you're watching Legend, the new film from writer-director Brian Helgeland (Payback, A Knight's Tale, 42) — and it will be a slightly different spot in the film for everyone — when you'll suddenly realize that what you're actually responding to is a pair of astonishing performances from Tom Hardy (as real-life British crime lords Ronald and Reggie Kray) and not the film itself. Hardy is so good, and the film is so decidedly average, that eventually the two will divorce themselves from each other in your mind, and anytime Hardy is not on screen, you'll find yourself drifting and getting bored.

Helgeland earned his Hollywood cred as a screenwriter, deservedly earning Oscar nominations for his scripts for L.A. Confidential and Mystic River. His track record as a director is more hit and miss, but he's still a fully capable storyteller, and the appeal of a story about these demented gangsters (who were the subject of the 1990 film The Krays) who ruled London for a good portion of the 1960s is easy to see. Reggie was the sane one — lean, good looking, able to see the bigger picture; Ron, the chubby one, was literally insane, committed to a mental hospital on more than one occasion and prone to nonsensical decisions and behavior that made him unpredictable in all the worst ways. He also loved being a gangster and had little interest in legitimizing the business, even if it meant more money. He was also gay, which he had no problem telling anyone or having anyone find out.

Based on the book The Profession of Violence by John Pearson, the film tracks the rise of the Krays from small-time hoods to influencers of politicians and police in London, but it rarely digs below the surface of their tough-guy personas and their ruinous loyalty to each other. Their lives were certainly interesting and their exploits legendary, but in terms of their actual personalities, we get very little. I suppose we're suppose to find Reggie the most relatable, since he takes a crack at a normal life when he begins to date Frances Shea (Emily Browning), whom he eventually marries, but even the threat of losing her doesn't seem to sway him to leave the criminal life behind.

On the other hand, Ron is pretty much out of control from the word go. Refusing to take the pills that will keep his mind stable, Ron keeps a small harem of young men (including Kingsman's Taron Egerton as Teddy) around him for sex and as something of a cheering section for his twisted ways. He holds a particular dislike for Leslie Payne (David Thewlis), the man who attempted to keep as much of the Krays' business above the law, a practice he learned from members of the American mafia. Speaking of which, Chazz Palminteri drops in at a couple of key moments as a representative from Meyer Lansky's camp, looking to expand their interests across the pond. It's a complicated but promising alliance, which of course makes Ron suspicious.

There's a feeling of the inevitable running through Legend. The story doesn't feel like it's happening; it feels like it already happened and is being seen through the eyes of someone who already knows where everything is leading (which isn't far from the truth). Moments of foreshadowing or stray lines of dialogue are peppered into the film that practically project what is to come, and it gets tiresome after a point.

There are times when the only thing keeping Legend afloat is the pure thrill of watching Hardy create two such unique characters who are meant to be both radically different and possess an undercurrent of sameness. As someone who would walk across hot coals to watch any new performance from such a gifted actor (up next: The Revenant), this movie's greatest value is his work; beyond that, there's very little to strongly recommend about Legend. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

A Ballerina's Tale

I first became familiar with Nelson George as a music writer, first with Billboard magazine and then as the author of two books — great 1980s works, one on the Motown sound and another about the "death" of R&B. In more recent years, he's written more broadly about black popular culture, produced or otherwise worked on films by Spike Lee and Chris Rock, and gotten into directing documentaries, such as Funding the Funk and Brooklyn Boheme. His latest doc steps away from black music, but keeps its feet firmly planted in the arts. A Ballerina's Tale is the beautifully structured story of dancer Misty Copeland, the young woman who became the first African American principal dancer in the world thanks to her role in the American Ballet Theater.

Copeland is a bit more curvy and muscular than your average principal dancer, so her promotion through the ranks of the ABT company marks not only a racial barrier being broken (the belief for many decades is that dancers of color or those who were too muscular would distract from the rest of the company) but a move away from the deeply disturbing trend of emaciated body types being the norm among ballerinas. Her concerns about not fitting in were met with anxiety, a lack of focus and binge eating — perhaps in an attempt to allow her instructors to kick her out for her weight and not her race. But after being guided through her role and importance as a promising ballerina, she regained her confidence and reminded the company that her stage presence was her strongest attribute.

Director George gives us a brief tour of the history of black women in the history of ballet, and we even get to meet a few of the trailblazers. In addition, Copeland's history of coming from a poor family, starting her dance instruction late in life (relatively speaking), and her recurring issues with bone and muscle injuries (one hairline fracture required surgery and months of recovery) are all nicely perused. Although it's never directly addressed in the film, anyone presuming that Copeland's rise is some form of tokenism need only watch one of the many extended dance sequences that Nelson is wise enough to leave in to see that she has a gift that is unrivaled.

Her 2012 casting in "The Firebird" (which caused her bone injury) and later as the lead in "Swan Lake" mark the two major pinnacles of her career, and you can't help but watch the performances and not think about all that has come before. The film ends right as Copeland's celebrity is on the rise — endorsement deals and appearances become a regular part of her week — so we never really get to see how fame impacts her work or her ego. It appears that the access that Nelson was granted is unprecedented, from warm-ups and rehearsals to doctor's visits and final performances while still in pain. Often uplifting and excruciating at the same time, A Ballerina's Tale places Copeland's story in the necessary context and shows how placing a person in a position they have earned based on their merits not only improves the quality of the company but increases the diversity of those coming to see this fresh new face, who for once is not a skeletal, pale white girl. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The Wonders

The winner of the Grand Prix at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, The Wonders concerns a large Italian family living in relative isolation, raising bees and producing delicious honey in the picturesque Tuscan countryside in Italy. Director Alice Rohrwacher (Corpo Celeste) portrays a family on the brink of self-destruction by many forces — a hot-headed, impulsive father named Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck); running out of money; new farming production regulations; or the family simply collapsing from putting too much pressure on the four young sisters who make up the honey operation's workforce — the oldest being 12-year-old Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who attempts to save the family farm by entering it in a nationwide reality show contest searching for the truest old-school, "traditional" Italian family in the land.

When we meet the family, they are taking on the equivalent of a foster child, a silent delinquent boy from Germany, who may or may not speak Italian, but he definitely does not like being touched. The family sets him to work as a farmhand, under Gelsomina's supervision. The children find out about the reality show when they stumble upon a film crew shooting a commercial for it near their farm. With the crew is the beautiful host of the show, Milly Catena (Monica Bellucci, just seen in Spectre), who as mesmerized by the natural beauty of the sisters as she is weirded out by their father.

The Wonders is a metaphor for Gelsomina's budding adolescence. The world seems intent on distracting her, drawing her attention away from beekeeping, even though she's a natural at it. She finds herself drawn to this strange new male figure in her life, and to anything that isn't her day-to-day life of examining bees, processing the honey, and looking out for her sisters. She's adrift in her own life, irritable and questioning her passive-aggressive mother about why she's still with Wolfgang, who seems to go out of his way to deny the family anything good, such as winning money from this reality show. She's too young to be the only sensible one in the family, but that's the way her life is presently.

The film also touches on the death and exploitation of the small town, the way provincial life is trivialized for the sake of tourism and a quick buck, and the way corporate farming is murdering the family farm wholesale. But it's when the The Wonders narrows its focus to its more personal tales that it excels. Gelsomina is one of the most perfect and interesting characters I've seen on screen this year. Her internal and external conflicts are devastating, and her desire to escape her life is downright heartbreaking. This is an understated but still quite moving work about a family in crisis but one still well within its ability to heal itself before it all goes to hell. It's a sometimes surreal, sometimes tense viewing experience, but wholly satisfying above all else. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

In Jackson Heights

The films of now-85-year-old Frederick Wiseman are pure immersion projects. Typically running about three hours, his works aren't about story or explanation or even identifying the people in his documentaries. They are about dropping you into a community or institution (as he does in such films as Titicut Follies, High School, Welfare, Aspen, Central Park, Domestic Violence, Boxing Gym, La danse, National Gallery — the titles usually tell you all you need to know about subject of each new film), and by the end of the movie, you feel like you could stroll into the place and know your way around, recognize faces and feel a part of the community.

His latest profile is of perhaps the most diverse community in the city of New York, Jackson Heights in Queens. One person in the film says more than 167 languages are spoken in the neighborhood, and Wiseman does his best to give as many of these nationalities, religions and other groups a voice in his film. Wiseman's method is not to interview these people, but to capture them in their natural environment — at restaurants, community meetings, protest marches, parades, houses of worship, or just at work. He seeks out places where a variety of colors, sexual orientations and faiths might intermingle on behalf of the community, and certain themes emerge from this tour.

In Jackson Heights features a rich mix of grass roots activity, especially on behalf of small businesses that are in eminent danger of being squeezed out by rich real estate developers looking for bring chain stores and rich white people into the neighborhood because Manhattan and Brooklyn are too expensive and crowded to contain them. We observe everyone from the local councilman to illegal immigrants in the film, and they all have great stories to tell and causes they champion. The community is a vibrant, functioning place, and we immediately feel by the end that disrupting it would be a huge mistake. And as is likely Wiseman's intent, I want my next trip to New York to include a detour into this essential melting pot of a neighborhood. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Tab Hunter Confidential

Essentially following the path of the former matinee idol's 2005 memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star, the new film Tab Hunter Confidential traces the wildly successful career and secret life of the movie star, pop singer and all-around handsome guy who was forced to hide his homosexuality deep in the celluloid closet.

The most immediate revelation many of you will have watching this film is just how big a star Tab Hunter truly was. Although mostly bubble-gum teenage in nature, his films were hits, and he was one of the most recognizable faces in Hollywood in the 1950s. There was something innocent and non-threatening about his brand of strikingly handsome looks, which both young girl and their parents seems to appreciate. When he wanted to become a singer as well as an actor, Warner Bros. Studios (to which Hunter had a contract as an actor) created a record division to release his music and capitalize on his massive success.

Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz (Vito, I Am Divine and upcoming doc The Fabulous Allan Carr, about the late Broadway and film producer), the film allows the now 83-year-old Hunter to narrate his own story decades after the fact. Most younger moviegoers might only know Hunter from his appearances in John Waters' Polyester and opposite Divine again in Lust in the Dust. But to hear his modern-day take on allowing the studios to set him up on dates with young starlets (like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds) in the hopes of throwing the gossip writers off the rumors of his being a gay man would be hilarious it also wasn't so tragic.

One of the sadder moments in the film revolves around Hunter's secret relationship with Psycho star Anthony Perkins, who was so terrified of being discovered that he broke off the affair, got married and had children. (Perkins died from complications of AIDS in 1992.) Hunter is still in a long-term relationship with film producer Allan Glaser, who had a hand in this film as well and appears in it.

But the real reason to check out Tab Hunter Confidential is to explore this rich corner of Hollywood history that isn't really examined much by film historians today. The archival footage is abundant and fantastic, and the current interviews with many of Hunter's close celebrity friends are engaging and illuminating, with notables like Reynolds, Robert Wagner, Lainie Kazan, George Takei and even Clint Eastwood chiming in about what a lovely man Hunter has always been.

Tab Hunter Confidential also looks at the plight of the struggling middle-aged actor, seeking relevance in a sea of B-movies and C-grade theater. Hunter was happier fading away in obscurity than tarnishing the career that had made him famous. With an eye toward always being entertaining, the film also reminds us that some find it better to be themselves and anonymous than live a lie to achieve celebrity. The film is quite moving, inspirational and a true eye-opening work for movie lovers. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

On Friday, Nov. 27, after the 8pm screening, Tab Hunter will discuss the film via Skype with myself moderating. For details and advance ticket, go to the Siskel Film Center's website.

The Creeping Garden

Rarely has a documentary creeped me out to this extent, and for that I love it. Directors Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp have fashioned something that's akin to a sci-fi documentary in The Creeping Garden, a nature film exploring the still-mysterious world of "slime mold," or myxomycetes (roughly translated: fungus-animal), an organism that take on many shapes, sizes and colors but seems to grow and expand at a rate that is almost animal-like, purposeful, seeking nutrients, doing so in a way that form elaborate and intricate patterns that imply some sort of intelligence behind them.

The film opens with a bizarre bit of archival national news footage describing the strange and unexplained presence of a "blob" substance all over an area of Texas (the report even says some residents believed the material might be from outer space, based on what, I have no idea). The film ends with an explanation that the substance was a fungus, which isn't exactly true, although slime mold often gets lumped in with the study of fungi. What makes The Creeping Garden so unnerving is the combination of breath-taking, time-lapse macrophotography that shows the rapid spread of many varieties of slime mold in eerie detail — its grows then retreats, which when sped up, almost looks like it's breathing — as well as musician Jim O'Rourke's (Sonic Youth) moody, atmospheric, wailing guitar, which indicates that what we're seeing is something to be feared, even though nothing can be further from the truth.

The film introduces us to some wonderfully nerdy scientists, researchers and amateur nature enthusiasts who walk us through everything from where in the woods to find slime mold, what it enjoys eating/absorbing, how to control its growth patterns to a degree, and how it is collected and stored (a visit to a vast fungus museum is equal parts fascinating and stomach-turning). The science on this possibly intelligent ooze is still far from conclusive, but some early discoveries are intriguing, especially when it comes to comparing the growth networks to the way human's maneuver around each other, as well as the way we build our infrastructures.

As the film goes on, we get used to the grotesque look of slime mold and begin to notice its beautifully complicated makeup and lattices and textures. Not surprisingly, we also eventually find the human characters just as adorable and complicated, who branch off their studies into the worlds of art, music and design. The Creeping Garden is a captivating and unique nature doc that expands the definition of the sub-genre by daring to consider the philosophical implications of a thinking, complex organism with no body parts or brain. It's a glorious experience that all ages will appreciate, and will likely spark both interest, debate and the imagination. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run 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.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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