Capone's Art-House Round-Up with THEY CAME TOGETHER, THIRD PERSON, IVORY TOWER, JACKPOT, and THE INTERNET'S OWN BOY!!!
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…
THEY CAME TOGETHER
It's one thing to parody the conventions of a particular genre, but it's quite another to take those conventions and lovingly stomp them under your boot heel, essentially guaranteeing that nobody in the film will work in that genre again. Welcome to the screamingly funny THEY CAME TOGETHER, a film that re-team director and co-writer (with Michael Showwalter) David Wain and his constant on-screen representative Paul Rudd, along with their WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER co-star Amy Poehler.
The story on paper seems simple enough and horribly familiar (which is exactly the point), as candy shop owner Molly (Poehler) meet-hates Joel (Rudd), and they can't stand each other. That's until they run into each other at a book store and discover their unlikely mutual love of fiction books. Joel just happens to work for a big candy corporation (run by Chris Meloni) that would like nothing more than to see Molly's shop go out of business, and he is caught between his job and his strong like for Molly. He's also more than a little hung up on his hot, unfaithful ex-girlfriend (Cobie Smulders), which causes problems in the relationship as well.
While a lot of this may sound like a fairly standard-issue romantic comedy, THEY CAME TOGETHER is actually embracing the conventions of rom-com to such a degree that it's actually squeezing the life out of them. And the film's deliberately phony sweetness is often peppered with out-of-nowhere foul language and inappropriate behavior that it's as shocking as it is really damn funny. The entire story actually a flashback being told by Joel and Molly at dinner with friends played by Bill Hader and Ellie Kemper, who are threatened with violence if they try to leave before the tale is told.
The film jumps from being fairly conventional to being utterly grotesque and surreal in a matter of seconds, and while that may seem jarring, Wain thrives in this environment as Wet Hot American Summer and Wanderlust (plus the countless TV series he's been involved with) have proven. Just as you get comfortable in a certain kind of laid-back comedy, something extreme happens to upset the balance. No rom-com trope is left untouched, including the film closing "big speech" moment that brings the couple back together, and even that sequence is fraught with shock and surprise and a bit of violence.
THEY CAME TOGETHER is literally overflowing with pretty much every member of Wain's old comedy troupe The State (Michael Ian Black, Ken Marino and even Wain himself), as well as an array of other familiar faces, including Jack McBrayer, Michael Murphy, Melaine Lynskey, Ed Helms, Max Greenfield (quite good as Joel's brother) and Jason Mantzoukas. Thankfully, this is not one of those comedies that crams in great talent only to squander it on weak material. The film is loaded with laughs and deserves to be seen with a packed audience of people who like to laugh, which you'd think would be everybody, but we all know better. Just be prepared for something unlike anything you've ever seen based on material you've probably seen far too much. You'll love it.
Paul Haggis is one of the movie world's most successful writers of high drama (MILLION DOLLAR BABY, FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS) and even some actiony stuff (CASINO ROYALE), but he made his biggest impact to date with his first film as a writer-director, the Oscar-winner CRASH, a work that audiences (and Academy members) seemed to respond to, while many critics butchered its manipulative ways. For the first time since that movie, Haggis has returned to telling a multiple-story feature with somewhat connected plotlines in THIRD PERSON, a clearly more personal work about award-winning writer Michael (Liam Neeson) and his painstaking process at his laptop.
There are three primary stories being told in THIRD PERSON, each one taking place at a different point in the respective relationships. Adrian Brody plays Scott, an American businessman in Italy who stumbles upon a woman in need (Moran Atias) who may or may not be conning him. The relationship in transition is that of Michael the married (to Elaine, played by Kim Basinger) writer and his mistress Anna (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring journalist hoping Michael will help her kickstart her fiction-writing career either with advice or contacts.
The two fight and make up with such ferocity that it becomes clear this is how the are all the time; this is their most effective method of communication, and it's truly messed up. The couple that is dead in the water already is former actress Julia (Mila Kunis) and artist Rick (James Franco), who have long broken up after an incident involving their young son, during which he almost died due to Julia's negligence.
Haggis takes us in and out of these three stories rather effortlessly, but there is always an undercurrent of tension even in the most relaxed moments because something about the whole film seem unstable. The filmmaker is guiding us through the minefield that is the modern relationship, filled with some truly glorious, romantic moments, coupled with pain, tears, and soul-crushing personal violations. Without giving away too much, we begin to realize that most of the action being shown on the screen is being guided, both by Michael and Haggis, who has drawn dialogue and situations from his own life. The film bounces, sometimes a bit too drastically, between quite believable scenarios to ones that seem highly unlikely in any country.
Two of the three dramas take place in European nations, and if these characters were speaking a language other than English, we might actually be able to put aside these questions about authenticity and just explain away the strangeness as "European." But with this largely American, English-speaking cast, it's more difficult to let the magical realism take hold the way Haggis likely wants us to.
THIRD PERSON is nothing if not ambitious, and there are definitely days when I'd rather see a failed ambitious project than a work by a filmmaker who simply doesn't give a shit (plenty of those to go around). Still, it's tough to get past the idea that Haggis seems to see women as the damaged goods at the root of all relationship problems. Sure, there are plenty of demons plaguing the men in this film, but if they didn't care so much about these ladies, their worlds would be so much easier. Nope, sorry. Can't sign off on that worldview. It's overly simplistic, treading that thin line toward offensive.
It's been too long since I felt true outrage on a subject thanks to a well-researched documentary, but Ivory Tower came very close. If I had kids about to go into a college, I'm sure my head would be on the verge of exploding right now. IVORY TOWER is actually about several things related to the college-going experience, and very little of it has to do with actual education. The film reminds us that there was a time not that long ago when getting a higher education was a right, not a privilege for the rich or those willing to go into six-figure debt until they day they die. In recent years, the nation's student loan debt surpassed the country's credit card debt, and the film asks how this happened and whether college is worth it, both as an expense and as a means to a better post-grad job.
Directed by Andrew Rossi (PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES), the film examines various college experiences from party school Arizona State to the free art/design college Cooper Union as it, for the first time since its inception, starts charging tuition despite its late founder's insistence that no student should ever pay. One interesting schooling experience is the all-male Deep Springs, located on a ranch in California, which essentially asks its students to drop out for two years and guide their own education by asking questions, self improving, and figuring out new ways to provide community service.
IVORY TOWER also takes a look at the far more affordable state of community colleges, and the growth in popularity of online learning—both free and paid. But the sad fact is that colleges are in a tremendous amount of debt as well, due to a constant state of building up and modernizing facilities to compete for students' dollars. And since out-of-state students pay more in tuition, guess who has a better shot at getting into your home state's schools? It's a vicious cycle that most experts in the film believe will collapse just like the housing market, the dot-com bubble, and financial institutions.
With billionaire college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs seemingly suggesting that a college degree isn't necessarily the key to success, the value of such an education seems to be more difficult to define and justify. IVORY TOWER presents many sides of the argument clearly, succinctly, and in a manner that even makes it interesting. It's certainly a film that all parents of growing kids should take a look at and really consider
Based on a story by Norway's leading crime writer, Jo Nesbø (who also wrote HEADHUNTERS), comes JACKPOT, a down and dirty, bloody mess of an affair about how greed dissolves the friendship formed between three ex-cons and their factory supervisor Oscar (Kyrre Vellum). Using what appears to be a scam system, the four men, who all work at an artificial tree factory whose employees are entirely ex-cons, enter a soccer pool and win millions, causing the three ex-cons to begin to vie for the winning ticket in Oscar's possession.
Directed by Magnus Martens, JACKPOT opens in a porn store/strip club loaded with dead bodies, including that of a stripper who has landed on and concealed Oscar from the police. When he's finally caught and brought in for questioning by master interrogator Det. Solør (Henrik Mestad), he weaves a story of the pool, the money and a great deal of killing. The film has the sort of joyous appreciation of a good crime story, soaked in blood, that old Coen Brothers films used to have. Nearly every character double- and triple-crosses each other at some point, until Oscar realizes he can trust no one but himself. And we soon realize that our narrator might not be that trustworthy either.
JACKPOT doesn't twist and turn to excess, and the story is relatively easy to follow and enjoy as a cleaver curiosity. At times, the film can be quite brutal and bloody, but it's also highly entertaining, full of unexpected turns, and it's darkly humorous, with a twist of vintage perversion for added flavor. It's a great b-movie in a time when there aren't nearly enough of those in the world.
THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY: THE STORY OF AARON SWARTZ
A truly eye-opening and gut-wrenching experience, THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY is the harrowing and tragic story of the brilliant internet activist Aaron Swartz (a Chicago-area native), creator of Infogami, Open Library, and a co-founder of Reddit, who at the age of 26 killed himself after being the target of government prosecution and persecution. The film tracks Swartz's humble upbringing in a supportive family (all members of which are interviewed for this documentary), where he was able and allowed to excel and become a true technology prodigy.
But as early as his preteen years, Aaron was beginning to look at social and legal issues regarding the internet specifically and society in general. Concerns about privacy, copyright law and social justice plagued him, and his opinions on the subjects as he got older earned him the respect of academia, legal minds and the media, as is illustrated in the film, which uses Aaron's own video blogs and countless other interviews he did throughout his young life as the narration for most of the film. Director Brian Knappenberger fills things in with some terrifically insightful talks with Swartz's friends, colleagues and those inspired by him.
It's clear the federal prosecutor was set to make an example out of Swartz, who had been indicted for illegally downloading academic journals, most of which contained research results paid for with tax dollars and were being sold back to the public at exorbitant mark-ups. Aaron was a massive proponent of freedom of information, and there were certainly bigger criminals in the world, especially considering he'd had a history of committing such acts for the purposes of turning the data back over the institution to show where its security weaknesses were. But the overwhelming pressure the charges caused him and his perilous fear of losing some part of his reputation were too much.
THE INTERNET’S OWN BOY walks us through Swartz's final days and mounting pressures after a two-year legal struggle, and it's one of the clearest cases of the government pushing someone to such a degree that paranoia and depression are the only response. It's a work that manages to capture Aaron's spirit, his place in the technological world, and the supreme sadness that come with his death. It's a tribute to his life and a condemnation of the forces that caused his death—a truly remarkable film.
-- Steve Prokopy
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