Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Redford's THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, DISCONNECT, and BERT STERN: THE ORIGINAL MADMAN!!!
Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP
After directing the sadly misguided history lesson about those who planned and executed President Lincoln's assassination, THE CONSPIRATOR, Robert Redford makes a welcome shift into more recent history with THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, which covers the aftermath of important US events that actually happened in his lifetime. In this case, it's the domestic antiwar group the Weather Underground, who bombed buildings (usually empty, but not always) as a way of calling attention to the thousands being killed in Vietnam, or so was their thinking. The film opens when one former member, Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), is picked up by the FBI just as she was on the verge of turning herself in.
In doing simple background research on the story, Albany reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) finds out that local public interest attorney Jim Grant (Redford) got a call to possibly represent Solarz—an offer he turned down. But being the jackal he is, Shepard doesn't let go of the connection and soon discovers that Grant is also a former Weather Underground member wanted for murder in connection with a bank robbery 30-some years earlier. Grant can tell that his cover is about to be blown, and after he deposits his young daughter with his estranged brother (Chris Cooper) in New York City (almost getting caught in the process by an FBI team led by Terrence Howard's Agent Cornelius), he sets out on a cross country journey. We assume he's simply on the run, but it becomes clear to Shepard that Grant is out to clear his name somehow.
Based on the Neil Gordon novel and adapted by frequent Steven Soderbergh writer Lem Dobbs (HAYWIRE, THE LIMEY), THE COMPANY YOU KEEP doesn't hold too many genuine surprises or twists. The film's biggest reveal, having to do with the parentage of one character, is so obvious, it's a little embarrassing. But what the movie lacks in suspense, it makes up for with some sharp writing and great performances from a superb multi-generational cast, including Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Stanley Tucci, Nick Nolte, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott and Julie Christie, as another former WU member with a lingering connection to Grant that he needs to exploit to achieve his goal and get back to his daughter.
It's always great to see Redford back in the acting saddle. He makes it look easy, and this film has many opportunities for things to get tough. The only problem with casting himself in this role is there was never any doubt in my mind that he didn't do the crime he is accused of. But watching him go on a type of personal odyssey through his past, reconnecting with old friends and a few not-so-friendlies, was fascinating to behold. I was also equally impressed with LaBeouf's portrayal of this deeply flawed journalist, who never fails to see the angle but rarely notices the damage he leaves in his wake. Even a potential relationship between him and the daughter of a source is scorched because of his ambition. LaBeouf's mannerisms and fast-talking style suit his manipulative character well.
THE COMPANY YOU KEEP ends with more of a thud than a bang, but short of killing most of the main characters, even that seemed rather inevitable. The film is strangely critical of '60s and '70s radical ideas and thinkers. Perhaps this is Redford's way of acknowledging that those who committed acts of domestic terrorism were no better than those who sent young men off to war. He's certainly not apologizing for '60s ideals, which I'm sure he thinks altered the course of history, but he may be saying that not everyone with long hair and a strong opinion was on the right side of things. The film is a curiosity, to be sure, but one that is highly watchable and front-loaded with great acting.
The tagline on the poster for the new ensemble drama DISCONNECT is "Look Up." If I told you that the film was about how everyday technology—phones, tablets, computers—is eating away at our lives and our humanity, you might get the line's significance; it's not subtle. It's also not the worst advice. If the film had come out five years ago, it might have had something to say that we hadn't seen or figured out on our own.
As it stands, DISCONNECT (from MURDERBALL director Henry Alex Rubin) is a decent attempt to show how technology has made it easier to depersonalize each other, through stories about cyber-bullies starting up a fake romance with a sensitive high school kid, whose parents (Jason Bateman and Hope Davis) are oblivious to their son's life, until he tries to kill himself after being humiliated to his classmates. Another stories involves a couple (Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton) who lose all of their money and credit through identity fraud; they decide to seek revenge on the man they believe did it (Michael Myqvist). It just so happens that the father of one of the bullies (Frank Grillo) in the first story is the cyber-crimes investigator for the penniless couple in the second story. You see how the interconnectivity works.
An almost unrelated third story concerns an underage online sex show worker (Max Thieriot) who becomes the centerpiece of an investigative journalism profile by a reporter (Andrea Riseborough) who naturally finds herself weirdly attached to her subject. As I said, a few years ago, these stories might have been eye opening to an audience, even shocking to some. But I feel like all of these tales have been made into episodes of "Law & Order: SVU," some more than once.
The acting here is actually what saves DISCONNECT from complete disaster. Bateman is actually quite good as a largely absentee father, whose eyes are opened wide by his a son's cry for help. At one point, one of the bullies starts to feel guilty about what has happened, and he shows up at the hospital where the boy's family is gathered. There's a conversation between the boy and Bateman (who doesn't know who this kid is) that is just staggeringly moving.
I was also impressed by Grillo's performance as a single dad trying to raise a good kid, who has just done a terrible thing. He's protective but he wants his son to do the right thing. With outstanding recent work in MOTHER'S DAY, WARRIOR, END OF WATCH, and THE GREY, Grillo (set to play Crossbones in the CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel) is fast becoming one of my favorite faces in movies. He's often cast as the resident tough guy, but then he brings something a little deeper that adds dimension to his parts.
The story with the reporter and the teenager is the least interesting, but former-child actor Thieriot owns every scene he's in thanks to a sexual magnetism that all the ladies and men that enter his gravity seem to respond to. Other than that, Riseborough's behavior as a journalist is utterly unbelievable, bordering on laughable. DISCONNECT is an average film punctuated by a couple of strong scenes and solid performances. You could do worse, but this weekend in particular, you could do a whole lot better.
BERT STERN: ORIGINAL MADMAN
Several years ago, I saw a tremendous document of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival called JAZZ ON A SUMMER'S DAY, and watching it is a joyous experience. I knew nothing about its origins or its filmmaker, Bert Stern, one of the greatest portrait photographers (especially of beautiful women) who has ever held a camera. Called the original "mad man" photographer (meaning he partied hard, bedded many of his models—famous and otherwise—and just generally behaved irresponsibly and selfishly), Stern is probably best known for his infamous "last sitting," semi-nude images with Marilyn Monroe, taken just before she died and published the day after she was found dead. (Stern re-created the shoot with Lindsey Lohan not long ago, and was universally chastised for doing so.)
Listening to Stern detail the Monroe sessions in this eye-opening and honest documentary on Stern's life is a fascinating exercise in seducing your subject without sleeping with her (not that he didn't want to), but he convinced her to wear very little makeup, and she went for broke with transparent veils and a confidence that she rarely showed in such intimate settings. When you see a collection of Stern's work, you'll recognize many shots that have become iconic, such as his LOLITA movie poster image (heart-shaped sunglasses and a lollypop) for Stanley Kubrick, whom Stern met when the two worked together at Look magazine early in their careers. Stern literally invented vodka ads in America (Americans were not drinking vodka in the early 1960s) with a series of wonderful photos that appeared in campaigns for Smirnoff.
What is somewhat strange about the film is that the director is model/actress Shannah Laumeister, who is currently in a relationship with Stern, but she's brave enough to interview several of his ex-lovers and even his ex-wife, who has both very fond and shockingly bitter stories of her own. But I don't think a true outside observer would have gotten Stern to open up as much as Laumeister does, and while she occasionally overwhelms the film with her personal stories (and a whole lot of nude images of herself, taken by Stern), I think her access enriches the final work.
As much as Stern frequently likes to tell us her loves women, it's clear from his stories of lusty photo sessions that he more enjoyed conquering them. And he had the looks, power, and certainly the talent in his younger days to make that a fairly easy accomplishment. In fact, there may be people who think he's a pig; certainly some of the women in the film do. But there's no denying that his images are lasting, significant, and true art. Come for the seedy stories, but stay for the often-breathtaking photos of both celebrities and other lovely creatures who he seduced with his talents. The doc paints the portrait of a man who is willing to be open but not quite all the way. Yet somehow, we never feel shortchanged by Stern or the film. He never held back when it came to his work, and that's what is most important.
-- Steve Prokopy
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