Capone's Art-House Round-Up with A MOST WANTED MAN, I ORIGINS, AND SO IT GOES, HAPPY CHRISTMAS, MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, UNDER THE ELECTRIC SKY, and CLOSED CURTAIN!!!
Published at: July 26, 2014, 2:12 a.m. CST by Capone
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…
A MOST WANTED MAN It's not surprising that director Anton Corbijn (THE AMERICAN, CONTROL) should so successfully direct a film based on a spy novel by John le Carré (TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). Both men are at their best when the emotion has been largely drained from their work, and they are able to tell their stories without much concern for broken hearts or hurt feelings. This is in no way to suggest that either are heartless artists, but they understand the value of the pure story, unencumbered by tears or attachment. In the case of le Carré, any sign of emotional connection is usually seen as a sign of weakness in the field he is often writing about—the spy game. In the case of A MOST WANTED MAN, it may be impossible for the audience to dismiss their emotion as this was the final leading role for the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and it's a perfect example of what he always did best.
Hoffman plays Günther Bachmann, the head of a German spy unit that the more above-ground intelligence agencies go to when acquiring certain information involves breaking laws, and he's almost had it with the games he must play with others in his field. The film wisely spends a great deal of time showing us Bachmann in meetings, plotting his moves in the field while he defends every small detail of his plan to others in the intelligence community. Nothing he does is ever easy, and although it's clear he's almost always the smartest person in the room, it's the visionless idiots who run the show.
His latest mission involves a mysterious young half-Russian Islamic man named Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has entered Hamburg seeking asylum after receiving a note from his now-dead father. He hides out in the city's Islamic community and obtain the help of lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), who in turn must contact powerful banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) to unlock the secret of Karpov's father's final wishes, which involve a substantial amount of money. Believing that Karpov may be a member of a terrorist organization and will likely use the funds to finance large-scale attacks, Bachmann and his team (which includes Daniel Brühl) set up a means of hopefully trapping those on the receiving end of his money. Of course, nothing is quite as simple as it seems, and intricate planning is for fools who think they are in control.
One of the most fascinating elements of A MOST WANTED MAN is the seemingly limited role of America in this entire scheme. A rather unassuming—bordering on pleasant—CIA agent named Martha Sullivan (played perfectly by Robin Wright) sits in on meetings, briefings and strategy sessions about the mission, but she rarely offers up more than encouragement that Bachmann is handling the things the way she would, which gives Bachmann the upper hand among his colleagues. They have casual, off-the-record conversations, sometimes over drinks, and we know two things about these talks: the CIA doesn't do casual, and Bachmann deeply resents the way the Americans run roughshod over all other nations in the name of anti-terrorism in the post-9/11 world (it's no accident that the film is set in Hamburg, where many of the 9/11 terrorists lived briefly). So while he's grateful for Sullivan's support, he knows she'd trample him if she needed to without a second thought.
A MOST WANTED MAN is an exercise is low-level tension and suspense that builds so gracefully and carefully that you almost don't notice it until you're in the thick of a perilous situation. Hoffman as Bachmann looks like a miserable person who has made just enough high-profile mistakes in his career that he's overly eager to make this operation work, if only to exit the job on a high note. But you can't help but look at Hoffman, playing his character as if he's living the life. His eyes look like they can barely be held open; his overly pale pallor seems even more so against that the ultra-grey, overcast German sky. Even his friendships at work seem obligatory. It physically hurts just a little to watch Bachmann move.
And in this plot filled with characters who aren't what they seem, sadly Bachmann has nothing to hide, making him a target. A MOST WANTED MAN is quite a good piece of filmmaking, made all the more essential by Hoffman's presence, Andrew Bovell's taut but layered screenplay that makes the complicated seen easier to understand, and Corbijn's steady, appropriately atmospheric visual style that unintentionally sets the tone for mourning such a great talent.
I ORIGINS If traditional, old-school video stores still existed in large numbers—the kind divided into genres—then I supposed the writer-director Mike Cahill's two films (ANOTHER EARTH and his latest, I ORIGINS) would be shelved as Science Fiction, but only because there really isn't a category called Character-Driven Drama Couched in a Science Fiction Story. Both films explore the idea of human identity, where we came from and the true nature of being a physical and spiritual being. And while Cahill and his actors could have told this story without digging too deep into the science of it all, they have instead chosen to submerge the material in largely real science (with a few deviations) to give it the cold, calculated feel of a real-life laboratory, which enhances the total experience beautifully.
I ORIGINS tells the story of microbiologist Ian Gray (Michael Pitt of THE DREAMERS, BULLY, and HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") who is going through the laborious process of disproving intelligent design by discovering a gene for sight in non-seeing organisms. Within about a 12-hour period, he is introduced to two women who forever change his life. One is Sofi (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey), a mysterious beauty with unique eyes and a foot firmly in the world of spiritual beliefs; naturally these two fall madly in love. The other is Karen (Brit Marling), a new research assistant with a passion for the work that might even surpass Ian's own drive, and the two begin down a path toward finding this gene makes them connect purely on their love of science and facts.
Talking too much about certain plot developments in I ORIGINS would absolutely ruin the joy of discovering it for yourself, but at about the midway point, the film jumps ahead many years to a point where Ian and Karen make a discovery that would not only be huge in the scientific community, it would literally change the way we look at the world and even the soul. At one point in the film, someone asks Ian directly, "What would you do if something spiritual disproved your scientific beliefs?" It's a fair question considering how often people of science ask those of faith to give up all or part of their beliefs in the name of scientific fact. I'm not saying those who disbelieve phenomena like climate change due to religious beliefs aren't certifiable, but the film boldly asks, "What if the shoe were on the other foot?"—especially if it were through scientific research that something spiritual was proven.
Cahill's films aren't just about the story; they're more interested in the conversation that happens on the way out of the theater, on the drive home, at the bar after the screening. It's a dying part of the film-going experience to have a conversation about the ideas in a movie, and not just a prolonged conversation about how special effects were achieved and whether a performance was good or not. Pitt is excellent as the often stone-faced resolute who seems to be constantly under siege from information that wants him to believe in something beyond his lab. Marling is also quite good as the woman who will also be the second choice in Ian's life, and she's okay with that because she's as much in love with the work as she is the man.
The film's final act is set in India, a place where many Westerners go for some level of spiritual fortification, and that probably isn't an accident. The sequence is equal parts frustration for Ian and discovery, and it is here that we are introduced to Archie Panjabi's Priva Varma, a woman who runs a children's shelter where Ian hopes to find all of his answers. Nothing is quite that simple in I ORIGINS, and I think we're all the better for that. By refusing to give us quick and easy answers, Cahill continues to inspire discussion with his work. I firmly believe that even those who don't like the film will talk about its ideas for hours. But I'm guessing most of you will appreciate what's going on here.
AND SO IT GOES It actually pains me to see Rob Reiner keep making films like this, and he's been doing it for the better part of 20 years, so I guess I just need to accept and move on. Strangely enough, I'm talking about giving up the same way I gave up years ago on Diane Keaton ever making another decent movie, and here she is proving me right again as Leah, an elderly woman who has just rediscovered her love of singing and is trying to make a living doing it again. But AND SO IT GOES isn't about his potentially interesting character's second chance at a career. Instead Reiner has chosen to focus on Oren Little, a grumpy, racist, nasty asshole of a man played by Michael Douglas, who just happens to live next door to Leah.
Oren is a real estate agent trying to unload a beauty of a home that it turns out he used to live in with now deceased wife, and the process is stirring up a lot of bad feelings in him — some concerning losing her and some about his estranged son, who is now a former drug addict about to go to jail for a crime he didn't actually commit. Before the son goes to jail, he stops by Oren's home to drop off his young daughter, Sarah (Sterling Jerins), a granddaughter that Oren never knew he had. Completely incapable of caring for the girl, Oren dumps her with Leah, who is appalled at Oren's behavior but happy to have the company.
A lot of nonsense happens in AND SO IT GOES, and the film is filled with colorful supporting characters (including Reiner himself, in a terrible hairpiece, as Leah's pianist), who add nothing to the film but minutes. There is a spirited group of other renters in Oren's little apartment complex, there are other folks at the real estate agency (including the wonderful Frances Sternhagen), and there is a parade of potential buyers looking at Oren's mansion. There's even a truly mood-shifting scene in which we meet Sarah's drug addict birth mother, and it's terrifying for the briefest of moments before Reiner snaps back to inanity.
All of these characters seem like filler, a true waste of time and effort, when the only story that seems to matter is about the struggle for these two older neighbors to find enough common ground upon which to build a relationship. These are two actors who have never had issues with audiences finding them sexy, even if they were for odd reasons, so in theory, these are the right people for these roles. But they spend so much time being abrasive to each other that we never really get to see how good they might be together. Filmmakers don't seem to understand that the inevitable conclusion of any romantic-comedy essentially destroys our potential enjoyment of the journey, so giving us a taste of how the couple might be together could be a nice treat that we're never allowed to savor.
There are two or three nice moments when Douglas and Keaton actually act like human beings and not like characters, but Reiner doesn't allow those moments to last long, as if he's afraid that if his jokes-per-minute count drops too low, the key demo for this movie will decide it's nap time. AND SO IT GOES is all types of agonizing, and it's tough for me to believe that older people would like having these two characters representing them. But don't fret; there's enough awkwardness and humiliation in this film for all ages.
HAPPY CHRISTMAS Writer-director (and Chicago-based) Joe Swanberg's previous film, DRINKING BUDDIES, feels downright epic in scope compared to his latest, HAPPY CHRISTMAS, a six-character family romp filmed in Swanberg's home and featuring his scene-stealing 2-year-old son Jude playing (what else?) his son. Swanberg returns to acting in his own movies (after solid work in other indie filmmaker's projects, including recent horror offerings YOU’RE NEXT and THE SACREMENT) playing Jeff, who is married to Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), a frustrated writer who managed to get one book published before becoming a mother became her full-time job.
Jeff's younger, slightly wilder sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to stay with the couple around the Christmas holidays after she has a bad breakup with her boyfriend. While Jenny and Jeff seem to get along famously, she spends her first night in town out with old friend Carson (Lena Dunham) at a party where she proceeds to get wasted and passes out. Carson has to call Jeff to come pick her up, and the resulting hangover and sleeping in the next morning means that Jenny is unable to help take care of Jude while Kelly goes out the next afternoon. Enter Kevin (Mark Webber), a family friend and occasional pot dealer, who comes over to babysit and ends up flirting with Jenny as she arises from her hangover fog.
The film dances around a couple of serious issues without ever fully committing to any of them, and I think that's deliberate on Swanberg's part. He's not trying to make this some kind of trumped-up family drama where issues are on full display only to be dealt with and resolved by the end of the film. Instead HAPPY CHRISTMAS is more focused on gives us flashes of trouble—Jenny might be a borderline alcoholic; Kelly may be more resentful of her inability to find time to write than even she realizes.
Using his tried-and-true method of pulling emotional truths out of his characters using improvisation, Swanberg gives us a handful of really funny and heartfelt moments. The budding relationship between Kevin and Jenny is sweetness wrapped in a bundle of nervous energy, with Kendrick practically crawling out of her skin with a strange blend of attraction to Kevin mixed with the desire not to repeat her clearly frequent mistakes with men (i.e., jumping into bed with them on the first date). I especially love the attempts by the female characters to gather together to discuss and write a trashy romance novel. Jenny and Carson hurl ideas at Kelly that are sometimes brilliant but often just silly and hilarious.
One of Swanberg's greatest strengths has been in the creation and casting of his female roles, and HAPPY CHRISTMAS is no exception. But this often means (including in the case of this film) that the male roles are slightly underdeveloped and don't really have much of a arc. Jeff is a genuinely good guy, and when Kelly asks for time and a place to write as her Christmas present, there's no argument from him. Likewise, other than being a drug dealer, Kevin seems like a decent bloke, who is more than happy to go at a speed that Jenny is comfortable with. Then there's the true lead of the film, Jude Swanberg, who might be the single most expressive baby and natural child actor I've ever seen, no lie. He will steal your heart and make you laugh until you puke.
For a film that seems more interested in touching upon certain issues that new parents deal with rather than tackling them head on, HAPPY CHRISTMAS still packs enough emotional heft to not feel like some lesser Swanberg work. Every performance is dead on, particularly Kendrick, who charms us and frightens us, sometimes within the same scene. Plus, the combination of the Swanberg tiki-style basement and the choice to shoot the movie on film (a first for the director) gives HAPPY CHRISTMAS an appropriately 1970s vibe that adds a bit of roughness to story being told. So while it may be slightly difficult to pinpoint what this film is actually about, that won't stop you from enjoying yourself.
MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT I know a lot of people are going to label the latest from writer-director Woody Allen as one of his lesser or middling works, and while I'd be hard pressed to argue that it isn't, I would say that it's worth checking out, if only to see the filmmaker's first (of at least two—she's also been cast in his next film) collaboration with Emma Stone, who seems so perfectly suited to his sense of humor, romance and sense of playfulness, that you almost wish you could see her in some of his older films. But the rest of MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT does feel a bit forced and ill fitting for some of the others in the cast.
It's strange how hit and miss Allen is when it comes to storylines that factor in his unique brand of magical realism, in this case the presence of psychic medium Sophie Baker (Stone), whose visions are so spot on that even the most skeptic debunkers are won over. But there are few more skeptical than Stanley Crawford (Colin Firth), a professional magician (he does his act dressed as a Chinese conjuror) circa the 1920s, whose longtime friend (Simon McBurney) calls him in to do what no one has been able to yet—prove Ms. Baker to be a fraud.
Coming to the home in the French Riviera where Baker is staying with her mother/business manager (Marcia Gay Harden), Crawford poses as a businessman, but Sophie's extraordinary abilities not only reveal who he really is but begin to work their way into his heart as well, despite the presence of a young suitor (Hamish Linklater) and his mother (Jacki Weaver), who are on the verge of funding an institute for psychics that will make Sophie and her mother quite rich. Despite being a magician—or perhaps because of it—Crawford has had no place in his life for believing in the spirit world or those who possess special powers. But Sophie chips away at his resolve and before long the unassuming young woman has him deeply in love with her.
This is classic period-style Allen, using the lovely costumes and other details as well as the locations to set the stage for an unusual love affair that has its beginnings in mysticism but transforms into something quite familiar and deeply affectionate. Firth's character is so difficult to like that you almost find it impossible to find him charming when he finally drops his insulting line of seduction and becomes a more traditional ladies' man. Still, there seems to be a dearth of likable characters in MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, and that doesn't help make the film a more pleasant experience to sit through. That being said, it's hardly a painful chore watching Stone and Firth play their game, dance their dance, and look good doing it. You could do a lot worse this weekend, believe me.
UNDER THE ELECTRIC SKY If ever there were an unnatural pairing of music documentary and critic, it is UNDER THE ELECTRIC SKY and me. The film chronicles a year in the life of the annual Electric Daisy Carnival, which began in 1997 and has become the largest electronic dance music festival in North America, bringing in some 345,000-some dance maniacs to the desert outside of Las Vegas in June 2013, complete with colorful costumes, glowing and sparking and flashing paraphernalia, and a party-on attitude that cannot be contained (although after about the second night, folks are starting to look a little ragged).
Directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz (who both made the doc KATY PERRY: PART OF ME, which looks like a coffee house performance compared to the scale of EDC) have the almost impossible task of capturing not just a cross section of the attendees and give us a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes goings on with organizer Pasquale Rotella and his team (including an extended look at the onsite medical facilities), but also give us an idea of the scale and significance of an event.
EDC attracts the biggest DJs from all over the world, and I'm at a loss just from this film what the real difference is between them in terms of the type of music they present. I wish the film had done a better job in indoctrinating us lesser-informed beings on exactly what these DJs do in a live performance aside from press a single Play button and turn the bass up exceedingly high. I'm not knocking the danceability of the performers or the event, but when one young woman professes her undying love for a particular act, I was confused about what made them unique or different from the DJ who proceeded them.
It's hard not to be impressed or in a constant state of wow when the filmmakers give us a true sense of the vastness of EDC, which usually happens with aerial shots of the ground at night where we can see the stages, carnival rides, pyrotechnics and massive overhead light displays that seem to almost cover the air above the festival. The filmmakers also do their best to give us a flavor of the art installations, hired costumed performers and other bells and whistles that Rotella seemingly adds at the last minute to make the event more exciting.
I did my best to keep track of the various DJs, including Calvin Harris, Fatboy Slim, Avicii, Tiësto, Afrojack, Armin van Buuren, and the duo Above & Beyond, but none of them give particularly compelling interviews to distinguish themselves beyond just being in awe of the scope and scale of the event year after year, and how they love connecting with their fans (what an original thought on their collective part).
And what about those fans? There are one or two truly moving stories that the film profiles, including a young man in a wheelchair who has a particular positive moment during the festival that seriously almost brought me to tears. And then there are a group of fratboy-like idiots in an RV who never stop drinking and sing the praises of a fallen brother who died a few months earlier from a drug overdose. I don't mean to be insensitive, but I'm not sure the best way to honor your friend is to drink yourself into oblivion night after night—but what do I know?
From what I've read, UNDER THE ELECTRIC SKY was shot in IMAX 3-D, and while the screening I attended was indeed in 3-D (which was put to great use to truly capture the acres of partying going on), I can only imagine the sensory overload that might happen if I'd seen this in IMAX. When the filmmakers concentrate on the music and experience of EDC, the film works; when it seeks to add meaning to the collective gathering, I tuned out. There is a lot of talk about the attendees being outsiders who feel included at EDC; I looked around at the rest of the crowd and considered that there may have been a time when only a few thousand people came to this event when it was in Los Angeles, but the days of this being an outsider experience are long gone.
Clearly a fully sanctioned film by Rotella and his Insomniac production team, the film is still a peek into a world I was completely oblivious to. I tend to be drawn to music docs on subjects I know the least about, and this would certainly would qualify. It's far from a terrible movie, and your enjoyment of it may depend on your familiarity with the artists and the event. But if you're feeling especially open minded, you could do worse.
CLOSED CURTAIN Iranian writer-director Jafar Panahi (THIS IS NOT A FILM) is actually under house arrest, but he's somehow just made his second film, CLOSED CURTAIN, a film that seems to directly express his sense of being creatively stifled and more than a little paranoid under his current circumstances. It's also an almost impossible film to discuss or review without being tempted to reveal more than should be in order to fully express how impressive it is.
The film opens with a writer (Kambuzia Partovi) in his isolated house and covering up every window so it's impossible for outsiders to see if he's home or not. There is some vague understanding that there is a military or police force outside that is searching for... something. And while the writer is not the target of the search, his feelings of being trapped make him cautious nonetheless. Before long a younger man and woman show up at his door seeking a place to hide; more specifically, they show up in his house, since they claim the door was open even thought the writer is sure he shut and locked it. It doesn't take long for the writer to understand that there is more to this pair than meets the eye, but before long the man leaves to search for a vehicle to drive away in, leaving the woman, Melika (Maryam Moqadam), behind with the writer.
Time is an important element in CLOSED CURTAIN, and it's also more vaguely defined in this story than in the real world. What at first seemed like a random arrival of these two, before long seems to be a targeting event, making the writer all the more nervous and tense about getting caught housing Melika. And just when it seems all will be revealed and motives explained, another character is introduced that alters not just the plot but our perception of everything we've seen up to that point, and we start to understand just how personal and tragic a story Closed Curtain is to director Panahi (who made this film with the assistance of co-director Kambuzia Partovi).
The work reveals the inner workings of an artist's mind under physical and emotional duress in ways that seem almost impossible to grasp. The writer's mood shifts violently from frustrated to defensive to raw with fear, and Partovi's performance is almost exhausting to watch as he is pushed and pulled by wanting to help and wanting to survive a largely unseen threat. But that's only half the film, and it's the back half of CLOSED CURTAIN that takes your breath away with its unexpected turn and wise means of expression.
I wish I could be more specific in the hopes of encouraging people to see the film, but that would ruin it. I've seen attempts at this type of storytelling before—even recently—but no one has gotten it quite this right in quite a while. Perhaps it takes a filmmaker in fear for his life to produce such a fragile and honest work. That's a shame, but the results are undeniable and extraordinary.