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Column Fri Dec 11 2015

In the Heart of the Sea, The Big Short, Macbeth, The Danish Girl, Theeb & Paradise Is There: A Memoir by Natalie Merchant

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In the Heart of the Sea

In many ways, this unbelievable story about a vengeful whale attacking a vessel designed to kill it belongs in the hands of a director like Ron Howard, who is a master at always finding the right tone for a story rather than imposing the same style in every movie he makes. I might even argue that if you didn't know you were watching a Ron Howard movie, you might never figure it out until the end credit begin to roll. I certainly don't mean to imply that Howard has no distinguishing characteristics as a director. Quite the opposite: his finest trait is that he doesn't smear his fingerprints across every film he makes, he lets the subject matter dictate every aspect of his movies, and he usually gets it right.

With In the Heart of the Sea, Howard tells the tale simply and quietly for most of the running time, because he knows every so often, there will be an explosion of violence either aimed at whales or caused by a rather large one. The film opens with a squirrelly young man named Herman Melville (a nice turn by Ben Whishaw) seeking out the last living survivor of the notorious Whaleship Essex, which in the winter of 1820 met an unlikely fate. The always-reliable Brendan Gleeson plays the former crewman, Thomas Nickerson, who was only a boy when the ship left New England, and after a bit of poking from his wife (Michelle Fairly), he breaks his long silence about the incident to Melville. Their conversation (which Howard cut back to every so often during the course of the film) feels more like a unburdening confession than simply storytelling, and Melville eats it up as he scribbles down notes with the desperation of a writer who senses he's about to be inspired to write something remarkable.

If you were to subscribe human traits to a whale (or any animal), it might be said that the massive white whale at the heart of this story was taking its revenge on the Essex for killing so many of its smaller brethren by smashing the ship to pieces in a series of calculated attacks. The screenplay by Charles Leavitt (based on the book by Nathaniel Philbrick) does a great job explaining the importance of the whale oil industry in the world and how powerful and ruthless the leaders of that industry could be (at this point in history, there were only rumors of oil found beneath the ground as well).

Before the whales even come into the pictures, another fiery battle is under way, between the newly appointed captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and his first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), who had been promised the job of captain until nepotism intervened, allowing Pollard to take over. Needless to say, their leadership styles clash almost immediately, and Pollard makes a series of novice mistakes early on that prove to the crew just how green he is. Watching Hemsworth scale the masts of the Essex in a flash makes him seem like a period superhero. But when they come under attack by the whale, the two put aside their differences and attempt to save as many crew members as possible.

Left only with the far smaller boats used to row out to whales to hunt them, the surviving crew members continue to be attacked by the white whale in a relentless and exhausting pattern of abuse. Among the crew members are Cillian Murphy's Matthew Joy and the young Thomas, played by Tom Holland (soon to become our latest Spider-Man). The survivors do eventually find land on a small, empty island with very few resources, so they must set out again in hopes of being discovered. Some of the revelations Nickerson makes to Melville about what the crew had to do to survive probably wouldn't be fit for a PG-13 film, but Howard finds a gruesome-free manner to get the point across; needless to say, it's about the worst thing you can think of, but after months at sea, there was little choice.

As typically beefy and bulky as Hemsworth is at the start of In the Heart of the Sea, he manages to push his performance away from larger than life and gives us Chase as a man possessed with his own type of revenge against the white whale. His eyes of full of rage and obsession, even if his body is a fraction of its former self due to starvation and fatigue. The film is a physically exhausting experience.

The final minutes of the story are a bit of a letdown, but compared to what comes before it, that's hardly surprising, nor does it destroy what is so good about the rest of the movie. The captures of the life of a whaler quite convincingly — the months of boredom when no whales are found, leading to desperation, and the sudden burst of frenzied activity when the creatures are spotted. Howard turns this singularly inexplicable incident into its own kind of fable, some that bear a striking resemblance to Moby Dick, and some that are uniquely emotionally devastating in a way only this specific story could be.

The Big Short

Around this time of year, I get a lot of people come up to me before of after screening to ask what they should look forward to as the holiday movies quickly approach us. Since I've seen a lot of the end-of-year offerings, I try to drop hints about two or three title to keep an eye out for that they might not be aware of, including this last-minute drop in from director Adam McKay (the Anchorman movies, The Other Guys, Step Brothers, Talladega Nights). In what I can only describe as a completely unexpected coincidence, nearly everyone I've told about this film has asked, "Is that the film from the guy who made Moneyball?" I'm not sure if they're asking about director Bennett Miller or writer Aaron Sorkin, but either way, the answer is an emphatic "No."

But in a strange way, I understand the confusion. Like Moneyball, The Big Short is a story about outsiders who become successful insiders by knowing how to read and play the numbers. Only instead of baseball, these men are betting in the mid-2000s that the credit and housing bubble was going to collapse in on itself. They stood to make hundreds of millions of dollars if the American economy fell apart in unprecedented ways, ways we're still recovering from in many places. In case you haven't figured it out, McKay is exploring a new type of filmmaking with this movie, not leaving comedy entirely behind but creating extraordinary levels of heightened drama about the deeply corrupt banking system. You've never seen anything pieced together quite like this one.

Our guide through the complicated and labyrinthian plot (from a screenplay by McKay and Charles Randolph, based on the book by Michale Lewis) is investment guru Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling, in full slickster mode), who introduces us to Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a hermit of a man who just happens to a be a doctor and one of the most perceptive investment advisors on Wall Street. Burry is the one who figures out that the housing market in on the brink, and he pumps millions of his clients dollars into a type of fund that will capitalize on such a colossal failure. He's immediately perceived as crazy; the fact that he walks around the office barefoot, in shorts, cranking heavy metal music doesn't appear to contradict that diagnosis.

A select few other investors take note of what Burry is doing and follow his lead with their fingers crossed Mark Baum (Steve Carell, who is exceptional as the angriest investor you'll ever meet), and a pair of young bucks that include Finn Whitrock (a favorite on "American Horror Story"), who in turns must ask for help from retired investment whiz Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to get their foot in the door of this opportunity. Got it? Me either, but you will.

McKay is smart enough to know that this overwhelming amount of data being thrown at his audience is too much to comprehend, let alone retain, so he finds clever ways to relay the information, such as cutting to Margot Robbie in a bubble bath drinking champagne as she explains some financial bullshit or another. I don't know how much more of the information sunk in as a result, but I like the method of delivery. But most of the time, it's Gosling who walks us through the details, in one of the single most charming performances of his career. But he makes it clear that he isn't necessarily a good guy in this story.

Going any deeper into the story seems unnecessary, but as a result of the investors poking around, doing their due diligence on this crazy scheme, a pattern of banking and oversight corruption is uncovered that is truly shocking. Other films have been made about the post-collapse bailout, but The Big Short is razor sharp, lazer hot and will violate every sense of right and wrong you hold dear. The film is designed to make you laugh, learn and get angrier as it progresses to a collapse we all know is coming.

And as this small handful of investors eagerly await their big payout, Rickert delivers a crucial and brilliant monologue reminding them that they need to temper their enthusiasm and remember that when this happens, people's lives will be devastating and ruined. (I urge you to seek out 99 Homes from earlier this year to see a personal account of the consequences of the housing market imploding.)

With a supporting cast that includes Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Max Greenfield and Karen Gillan, The Big Short will grab hold of your world, shake the hell out it, and put you back down in your seat pissed off, grieving for our nation, and wondering what the government or any regulatory agency is doing to make certain this never happens again. You won't like the answer to that question either. This is a powerful film that sneaks up on you and leaves you spent and wounded. You'll love the filmmakers for it, believe me.

Macbeth

This frustrating adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most famous works, Macbeth may go down in film history as a footnote attached to write-ups about star Michael Fassbender and director Justin Kurzel's next collaboration, the video game-turned-movie Assassin's Creed. As it stands, Macbeth is something of a well-staged, beautifully shot mess with whispered dialogue standing in for actual dramatic reading. The story of the man who would be the King of Scotland is one of the finest in history about ambition and paranoia poisoning the mind of a powerful man who is still grieving after losing his beloved son.

Hi wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) is a frayed bundle of raw emotion, and she pushes her husband to suspect new potential rivals and dispose of them. Both in its depictions of the assassinations and the wartime sequences, Australian-born Kruzel (The Snowtown Murders) opts to go particularly brutal and bloody, all in glorious slow motion, so we don't miss a precious drop of blood exiting the body. The decisions of what to leave out, leave in and add to the original text are key to this telling. Actually shot in the misty Highlands of Scotland, the location seems to lend itself to the more ghostly, supernatural elements.

While the key performances — which also include Paddy Considine as Banquo, David Thewlis as the previous king, Duncan, and Sean Harris (most recently seen as the villain in the latest Mission: Impossible film) as Macduff — are all strong, there is something strangely distancing about the film overall. Since we never get a hint of what Macbeth was like before his mind snapped, we don't get to feel the great loss he suffers in the film's opening sequence. And while the same might be said for Cotillard's work, she somehow manages to inject more empathy and suffering into her character, and the result is maybe the best performance of Lady Macbeth I've ever seen.

Macbeth is an ugly, aggressive story by nature, and Kruzel doesn't miss an opportunity to underscore that in scene after scene. Nearly every frame of the film is flush with tension and the threat of violence, characters are caked in blood or filth — usually both — with an alarming frequency. And Fassbender's delivery is sometimes so menacing as to be villainous (as opposed to just misunderstood and easily manipulated). This is a mixed bad of an interpretation, but when it comes to Shakespeare, I tend to value bold adaptations more than routine, faithful ones. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Danish Girl

Director Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, That Damned United, Les Misérables and HBO "John Adams" miniseries) gets a lot of grief, admittedly some of it warranted, but not all of it. And there's really no arguing that more often than not, he gets some of the best work out of the very talented actors he gets a chance to work with, some of whom go on to win Oscars. With this latest work, The Danish Girl, he's certainly keeping his cast members in the awards conversation as he tells the story of married couple and artists Einar and Gerda Wegener (last year's Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne and the busiest woman in film this year, Alicia Vikander), the former of which went on to become one of the first-ever recipients of gender reassignment surgery circa the 1920s.

Einar was the more famous and successful of the two, but Gerda was on the verge of a breakthrough in modern Copenhagen. The Wegeners were clearly a happy couple, very much in love, but, as portrayed in this film, anytime Einar was complimented on his more feminine features, he would blush but clearly take some pride in the recognition as well. When her female model fails to show up one day for posing, Gerda asks Einar to slip on some stockings and hold up a frock to the torso to pose, and something seems to click — a recognition, an acceptance, an awakening. And things are never quite the same in him again.

Einar decides he'd like to dress up in Gerda's clothes, wear make-up and even go out in public like this under the guise of Einar's cousin, Lili. And he pulls it off without being recognized, more or less. Gerda is supportive when she begins to realize that this is something more than just Einar playing dress-up, but when she catches Lili kissing another man, Henrik (Ben Whishaw), she draws a line that she must know will be crossed. Further complicating things is that Gerda's paintings of Lili are her breakthrough moment in the city's art world, and she's offered a show of her own, featuring nothing but Lili paintings. Her success is now tied to her husband's slowly but surely becoming a woman.

As an actor, Eddie Redmayne has grown on me over the years, and while he does make for a convincing and attractive women in The Danish Girl, he also wonderfully captures the feeling that must accompany the need to transition, that startling realization that you are in the wrong body and you're driven like an addiction to present yourself in a way that feels most natural. It's all there on Redmayne's angular face. Still, he's not the most interesting or emotionally charged character in this film, especially since once Einar makes his decision, he rarely looks back or acknowledges those he's leaving in his wake. Vikander's Gerda is the character with the most important story arc; she is torn between wanting this man she loves to be happy and losing him once he decides to take on the Lili identity permanently. Vikander's (also seen this year in Ex Machina, Testament of Youth and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) is the most fully realized character in this film, and it's through Gerda that we are able to enter this story and understand her struggle.

One interesting side story that becomes more important as the film goes on is Einar/Lili's recognition that he felt these feelings back in school when he was best friends with Hans Axgil, whom he tried to kill, with humiliating results. Gerda tracks down Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts, recently seen in Far From the Madding Crowd) in hopes of sparking some emotional trigger in Einar. And while their reunion is quite cordial, it doesn't have quite the desired impact, but it does strike up a friendship between Hans and Gerda that indicates she may have a way of buffering her loss. It doesn't turn out to be quite that simple, thank goodness, and I like the way screenwriter Lucinda Coxon (adapting the novel by David Ebershoff) doesn't make things easy for anyone. Everyone must suffer a little if they hope to come out the other side stronger and closer to their true self.

The Danish Girl seems remarkably timed in terms of the world we live in today. Discussions about sexual identity and gender confirmation procedures are far more commonplace today but there's still something of a stigma attached. The story of Einar/Lili and Gerda reminds us that every shift in the world that reconfigures what is the norm can be hardest on those taking the greatest risks. When we get the portion of the film that deals with the actual surgery, I'll admit, my aversion to all thing surgical kicked in and my stomach jumped a few times, but that didn't stop me from really falling into this film and embracing it, even in those awkward moment when Redmayne is admiring himself in the mirror just a little too much. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Theeb

To fully understand Jordan's submission for next year's Best Foreign Language Oscar, Theeb, you have to imagine a version of Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence is a minor player, with one of the many locals featured in the background has been elevated to the lead character. Set in the early 1900s during the height of war in the Ottoman Empire, a young man named Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) is effectively raising his younger brother Theeb (or "Wolf," Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat) in a Bedouin community in an extremely isolated area of the desert. But changes are coming in the form of a railway built by Ottoman troops, one which the Brits are especially upset by and would like to destroy.

A British officer (Jack Fox, son of the great actor James Fox) comes to their village to hire Hussein as a guide to a difficult-to-find well, found along an old pilgrim's path on the road to Mecca. Fearful of being alone, Theeb secretly follows the small party headed to the well, but they eventually spot him, and he becomes a part of their team. It isn't long before the group is attacked by various hostile groups, including revolutionaries who want to kill anyone associated with the British, as well as Ottoman mercenaries and bandits from their own Bedouin brotherhood. After one such particularly brutal attack, Theeb ends up being forced to join forces with one of his attackers (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) in order to survive, and he begins to understand that many of these Arab groups have many of the same goes in mind for the way they'd like to live.

A first feature for director Naji Abu Nowar, Theeb is a desperate, sometimes terrifying film about a boy using his instincts and training from this brother to survive all manner of attack and treachery. He makes it clear that the landscape as well as some dwelling within it are equally dangerous. The film is also quite specific about cultural practices, differences and similarities, and seems embittered about how little the occupying Brits know about Arab culture and rightfully so. The film was shot in super 16, and you can almost feel the grit on the film during some of the more perilous wind storms and brutal battles. Young Theeb is both an active participant in this cultural battle and a keen observer of behavior, knowing full well that if you act you belong somewhere, most people won't question you being where you don't belong.

Theeb moves along at a tight clip, and features a great deal of violent action that gives the work just enough of a modern, Western touch to keep everyone watching keenly interested in the proceedings. The young actor playing Theeb is so good, and he's required to carry a great deal of not just the film's running time, but the emotional weight, when he and his brother are separated. The film is ragged along its edges, but is beautifully shot (by cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler) and carefully drawn out of everyday existence in a harsh environment. It's unlike anything you're likely to catch this month and well worth seeking out. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Paradise Is There: A Memoir by Natalie Merchant

In an interesting choice for a musician who has spent a career trying to make an album better than her first solo project in 1995, Natalie Merchant decided to re-record the songs of her debut record Tigerlily using alternate arrangements and musicians, ones she says she might have used 20 years ago if she'd known anything about how a studio worked. Tigerlily went on to sell millions of copies and became a pillar of strength for those who hold it dear. An examination of both the original album's construction and the reworking of it that was released ecently under the name Paradise is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings is the subject of this documentary, directed by Merchant, who treats the entire project like an intimate personal memoir.

Paradise Is There (the film) dabbles a bit in Merchant's personal history and childhood growing up in western New York in an area of the country known as the Rust Belt (due to it once being a center of industry that now lies largely dormant) and into her early years as a singer, which led to her becoming the singer of 10,000 Maniacs through the 1980s until 1993, when Merchant left the group. It's one thing to listen to talking heads discuss a person's career, but to have these events presented first hand by the subject of the film makes an important and fascinating difference. Merchant doesn't hold back about the reasons for joining and leaving the band, and while it appears the split was relatively drama free, the upheaval to her personally was immense.

Another interesting aspect of the documentary is that, in addition to Merchant talking about the individual songs that make up Tigerlily, she also interviews fans of the album or particular songs, all of whom have such intensely personal connections to her music that you feel like you're hearing the private thoughts of a few of these folks. There's a surprisingly amount of footage of Merchant and her group of players making Tigerlily, and they make it seems like it was just about the most casual process ever invented. We don't get as much about the recording of the new album, but we do get largely complete live performances of nearly all the songs on the album, including lovely versions of "Carnival," "Wonder," "Jealousy" and "Beloved Wife." Before each song, Merchant goes into a bit about the inspiration for the original track, and it's clear that there are no throwaway songs in this collection. Merchant feels every note, even today, and it's unmistakeable how much rediscovering them has meant to her.

Is there a degree of self-seriousness to Merchant laying out each song? Oh, absolutely. But eventually you just understand that she doesn't know how to be any other way. I'd rather have an artist care too much than not enough. She directed the film herself (a copy of which is included when you buy the re-recorded album), so what do you honestly expect? As a fan of music documentaries in general, when I watch one about an artist or album I don't know much about, I need the film to convince me the music/performer is worth building a doc around. In the case of Merchant and this album, it's clear that Tigerlily touched so many lives by zeroing in on the emotional components of life and hurt and love. It's an impressive presentation of new and old material, and it seems I need to invest in one or two new albums very soon.

The film will play in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, Dec. 12, 8pm; Friday, Dec. 18 at 8:15pm; Monday, Dec. 21 at 8pm; Wednesday, Dec. 23 at 8pm; and Saturday, Dec. 26 at 6:30pm. On Saturday, Dec. 12 at the 8pm screening, Natalie Merchant will be present for audience discussion. Attendees will be eligible to win signed posters and DVDs.

 
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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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