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Updated: 2016-12-10T11:53:40-06:00

 



Chicago Symphony Orchestra Accompanies "It's a Wonderful Life"

2016-12-10T11:53:58-06:00

A live score for a film such as "It's a Wonderful Life" is like 3D for your ears, providing an invaluable, lively audible texture that can be lost during any standard film projection. As Friday's Chicago premiere of the newly restored score reminded me, Frank Capra's 1946 film is told not only by the sheer force of all-American values, but framed as a story shared by cosmic beings in the universe. Watching the film with such clean string and vocal accompaniment (as performed by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Chorus) and even muted trumpets for "Buffalo Gals" is probably the closest we can get to hearing George Bailey's story like the angels would. I have seen films scored live before (at this past Ebertfest), but those were silent movies, in which musicians like the Alloy Orchestra or Renee Baker and her orchestra offered an emotional interpretation. With a film like Capra's, its wide-ranging, definitive emotions in dialogue and atmosphere are to be savored, especially as composer Dimitri Tiomkin's score is a text of its own. One that, with this special occasion, has recently been restored by composer-conductor Justin Freer (as part of his expanding CineConcerts program), who took Tiomkin's original score from the Paramount archives and brought it back to the movie, now giving Capra's film an extra 40 minutes of music. For a motion picture in which music fills the characters' lives, the CSO recreates a great deal of what can be heard in Capra's film. One highlight involves the scene where Jimmy Stewart's George saunters into Mary's house, and she puts on their relationship motif "Buffalo Gals" to set a romantic mood. The CSO highlights the moment's many layers, with trumpets carrying the melody of the tune as the strings of Tiomkin's score play under it, creating a powerful effect when Mary and George have one of their very first serious connections as inevitable husband and wife. With the live score bringing the 70-year-old film's visuals to life, the emotional stakes of good ol' George and his altruism are heightened. In the earlier days of his life, when the Bedford Falls band plays the Charleston at the party in the school gymnasium, the orchestra places you in the gym and right next to his romantic pursual, which sends him to Mary (Donna Reed). Or, later in the film, when George has seemingly lost everything except a life insurance policy that could help save the town and his family, the score's emotional clarity provides an essential millisecond in which your heart tells you that, this time, he might just throw himself off that bridge. The live score experience hits an appropriate climax during the third act of the movie, in which George looks into the alternate reality of his non-existence. Aside from its disorienting feeling visually, the score makes the nightmare feel more immediate than a saturated soundtrack's background music ever could. It does, of course, lead to a pay-off of unity and warmth in the Bailey household, but in this case the beatific singers declaring "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are there in the room with you. For an American pastoral of a film with so many moments that seek to grab you spiritually, giving this movie its prestige in the process, the live score experience expresses these feelings with a brightness like no other. It's worth noting too, that while Tiomkin's score didn't get one of the film's five Oscar nominations, the sound recording did. A special treat of this presentation is that the current sound editing here doesn't cut out its design, allowing the sounds of the film to work along naturally with the music. There are even moments when the orchestra appropriately mixes its own volume, playing underneath certain action or dialogue, as if we were watching the score being recorded all over again, but in the alternate universe of the way Tiomkin meant it to be. Aside from the thrill of watching a live symphony, it creates an exciting journey to find just the right aesthetic balance, and it comes together quite nicely.[...]



Frank & Lola

2016-12-10T12:13:55-06:00

"Frank and Lola" starts right in the middle of a frank sex scene between its leads, the fortysomething chef Frank (Michael Shannon) and the recent college graduate and would-be fashion designer Lola (Imogen Poots), and it continues in that vein, dropping us into the middle of moments, relationships and predicaments and expecting us to find our way through them. It's a terrific gambit, as well a welcome break from the preferred method of storytelling in romantic dramas, which is more along the lines of, "Hi, John, how is your brother, who I haven't seen in twelve years, and who betrayed me?" The problem is that, despite being played by two charismatic and more-than-capable actors, the title characters never click in the way they need to. They're too cool and vague for the volcanic story they enact.Plot twists pile up, and a light-footed, psycho-sexual character study becomes something like a film noir revenge thriller. Frank goes to Paris, ostensibly to look into a potentially lucrative chef job set up by Lola's mother (Rosanna Arquette, overdoing the shallow self-regard and sexual voraciousness; when she tells Frank, "I can't wait to taste your food," I expected her to add a cartoon-y meow). But the job interview is a pretext to confront the would-be patron (played by Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist), the owner of the Las Vegas hotel where Frank would serve as head chef. This man raped Lola years ago. She credits him with jump-starting a pattern of self-destructive sexual behavior, which includes an impulsive one-night stand at a hotel with a guy she admits means nothing to her (Frank is devastated). So far, so good—many a memorable seventies thriller has gotten by on less plot than "Frank and Lola" offers. But we're still left with the nagging feeling that debut writer/director Matthew Ross and his cast never quite got a handle on what draws these two to each other, what would make Lola disclose that devastating story to Frank after years of telling no one (including family), and what demons would compel Frank to fly across the Atlantic and come on like Charles Bronson in khakis. When they're together, there's a relaxed, whispery quality to their interactions that's at odds with the mad foolish love so much of the plot seems to require. From a distance, theirs seems like a relationship that might have another six months left in it, the kind of brief but intense extended affair that they'll both fantasize about occasionally, years or even decades later, but without spending too much time wondering what might have been because they already know the answer. There's something missing here, something big, something that would have tied up all the film's finer qualities into a coherent whole. The most frustrating thing about realizing it is that it's impossible to know exactly what could have been done to create the spark this movie needed to combust. Shannon is, as usual, superb, turning Frank into a believably scruffy neo-noir hero with a rough past: he left home when he was just 16 and has been working in kitchens ever since, and there are intimations of abuse in his past, which partly (if not fully) illuminates his Paris crusade. Poots makes nearly as strong an impression, but unfortunately this is not her movie. Where Frank is allowed a rich interior life and drives much of the action, Lola is primarily his inspiration, the force that compels him to act and react. I would have liked to have seen more exploration of her psyche, with Frank serving as gruff sounding board, and less of the "Death Wish Lite" stuff. The supporting cast is filled with ace character actors and rising stars, including Justin Long as a smarmy younger man who says he wants to help Lola with her fashion career and makes that seem like a euphemism. And Ross has a great sense of how to build a scene and let actors carry it, while still paying attention to light and space and never allowing the camera to become a mere recording device. The movie is at its best when jealousy is welling up in Frank, and Lola is feeling [...]



Help Support Facets Cinematheque

2016-12-09T15:38:51-06:00

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The following letter regarding Facets, Chicago's historic cinematheque located at 1517 W Fullerton Ave., was recently written by executive director Milos Stehlik and associate director Mary Visconti. 

Today, more than ever, we need diverse voices to be heard. Now, more than ever we need you to support and strengthen Facets. 

The world will not cure itself. It needs our urgent help. Please give to Facets today to keep that hope alive.

Help us continue to use film to combat a climate of threats, violence, and fear by screening, discussing, and teaching films that open communication between adults and children of diverse backgrounds and divergent points of view. 

Help us build a united voice to save the planet through empathy and understanding.

  • More than 50% of the participants in the over 126 Facets Kids Film Camps we have presented each year attend on full scholarship, based on need, recommended by principals and teachers from schools in low-income areas.
  • We have been fiercely independent since 1975, committed to celebrating creative voices for over 41 years, and are now the only independent non-profit full time art cinema in Chicago.
  • 54% of the films we screened last year were films by women and 28% by filmmakers of color.

Your support today counts more than ever.

Thank you.

Click here to donate to Facets. You can find more information on Facets by visiting its official site.




Ebert Archive Remains Essential Reading at Sun-Times

2016-12-10T11:53:41-06:00

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The following letter from Chaz Ebert was originally published on June 23rd of this year, a day before the Chicago Sun-Times began reprinting Roger Ebert's classic reviews in a weekly column entitled, "From the Ebert Archive." The first was his 1996 review of "Independence Day," which ran the same day as the film's far less successful sequel, "Independence Day: Resurgence," was released. In today's issue of the Sun-Times, Roger's review of Frank Capra's 1946 classic "It's a Wonderful Life" was republished, in honor of the film's 70th anniversary as well as its three-day run with live score accompaniment at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

I AM HONORED that the words of my late husband, Roger Ebert, will once again be featured in the paper he loyally served for 46 years. Many people at Roger's Memorial Service affirmed how he was, at his core, a newspaper man. And Steve James documented in "Life Itself," the film about Roger, the devotion Roger felt toward his adopted hometown. That devotion caused him to turn down offers that would have sent him to either of the coasts. He greatly valued his position as a writer, not only of movie reviews, but of editorials and other articles about life itself. 

I can clearly remember the late nights in which Roger would be typing away furiously, completing several articles in a row. These weren't disposable knee-jerk reactions that would be forgotten as soon as readers tossed their papers in the recycling bin. Roger's reviews and articles were written to stand the test of time. I hope his insights will resonate with today's audiences every bit as much as when they were first published. 

Roger was also so proud of being associated with a city of multiple newspapers. Over the years we may have lost the Chicago Daily News and other publications, and we are all aware of the struggles of remaining a two-newspaper town. But I can assure you that although Roger was also a technologist who loved the internet, he would be truly pleased that his words are once again appearing in newsprint. Thank you to the Chicago Sun-Times for providing Roger's voice with this platform, and for preserving the local perspectives that make newspapers an essential read.

Sincerely,

Chaz Ebert

P.S. A great holiday gift this year would be "The Great Movies IV," the fourth and final compilation of Roger Ebert's Great Movies essays. To order your own copy, click here or here



Harry Benson: Shoot First

2016-12-09T09:19:10-06:00

The word “iconic” is said for the first time less than one minute into this documentary. It is uttered a second time before the movie’s second minute is up, this time by no less a personage than Donald Trump, who’s called a “real estate entrepreneur” in the on-screen title that first introduces him. Harry Benson, now 86, is a Scotland-born photographer who came to prominence chronicling the first international tour of The Beatles. Among the “iconic” images he’s captured are winning shots of the Fab Four, in their 1964 moptop mode, engaging in a high-energy, smile-filled pillow fight in a bedroom of Paris’ Georges Cinq hotel. A montage of these images is accompanied in this film by celebrity interviewee Dan Rather intoning, in serious-verging-on-pompous tones, the historical boilerplate about how in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America was ready for something to cheer it up again, and what with the young people coming up, the Beatles were just the thing, and blah blah blah. This sequence nicely encapsulates everything that’s wrong and right about this movie, directed by Justin Bare and Matthew Miele. The duo’s prior filmography, containing titles like “Crazy About Tiffany’s” and “Scatter My Ashes At Bergdorf’s,” indicates just which side of the railroad tracks they most enjoy spending time on. Hence, this is a picture that luxuriates in its celebrity power. In addition to Trump and Rather, the filmmakers get onscreen testimonials about Benson from the likes of Alec Baldwin, Sharon Stone, Bryant Gumbel, Carl Bernstein, James L. Brooks, and Henry Kissinger. (Also included are a lot of top-drawer media folk, the most entertaining of whom is, of course André Leon Talley.)  It’s impressive, kind of, but it’s also a little distracting. In part because Benton himself is such a good raconteur. Recalling his assignment to follow the Beatles around, he tells of bristling at the job: “I wanted to go to Africa. I was a SERIOUS JOURNALIST.” With a frankness that distinguishes all of his recollections and observations, he reveals that he got the job because the other photographer at his paper was “ugly.” One couldn’t be around the Beatles if you were ugly, Benson says. Contemporary pictures of Benson show a serious-looking handsome gent with a healthy shock of brown hair. A companionable seeming fellow. This quality served him well when he went on more dangerous assignments, covering the Ku Klux Klan during the civil rights movement era, befriending Martin Luther King Jr.. He was admitted to King’s hotel room after the leader's murder, where he captured some very unusual shots. He then joined Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and his camera documented some of the terrible and memorable images of the late politician directly after his shooting. Among these is an image of Ethel Kennedy with her hand raised, trying to block Benson. Benson’s reflections on his actions at the time are interesting. He’s there as a photo journalist; it’s his job to capture the moment, no matter how awful the moment. Still. Benson, apparently a man of faith, muses that when he meets Kennedy in the next life—he clearly liked and admired the man—“I think he’ll understand.” Benson makes similar wishes about John Lennon, because Benson also took some very provocative images of Lennon’s killer, Mark David Chapman. Benson reveals that Chapman actually took the photographer aside and said to him, “I’m sorry I killed your friend.” These moments are the best things in the movie, but they’re fleeting. As much if not more time is spent on a Jack Nicholson photo shoot in which the pictures captured a foreign substance dangling from a Nicholson nostril hair—news flash, Jack Nicholson possibly used cocaine in the 1980s—or indulging the non-Benson interviewees. Carl Bernstein is allowed to discourse on celebrity semiotics. Examining Benson[...]



I Am Not Your Negro

2016-12-09T15:17:23-06:00

Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro" is a political statement and a deep look into the mind of James Baldwin, one of the 20th century's greatest writers and social critics. It is also an unusual and striking cinematic biography with a specific mission: to show America through the eyes of an African-American, scattering shreds of hope amid horror, exasperation and disgust.  The film is built around material that was created largely by its subject (the voice-over narration, read by Samuel L. Jackson, comes from Baldwin's last, unfinished novel), and Peck illustrates much of it with documentary and news footage, vintage photos, news clippings and onscreen text. And yet we don't get all that much imagery of Baldwin himself. This choice might might seem puzzling at first he was, after all, one of the few prominent African-American intellectuals who were regular presences on network TV in the 1960s, and from what little we see of those moments (the highlights include some choice bits from "The Dick Cavett Show") it's clear that Peck could have built a satisfying feature just around James Baldwin the camera subject: that's how authoritative he was. But this decision and others make sense as the film unfolds. "I Am Not Your Negro" is not interested in giving us the full arc of Baldwin's life. It is mainly interested in presenting how he saw and wrote about the world. And it does it with imagination, sensitivity, and passion tempered by sorrow.The bits of Baldwin's novel that have been turned into narration focus on the 1960s, with the murders of John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. serving as milestones in despair. Along this historical clothesline, Peck strings a series of observations and anecdotes, sly asides and words of wisdom, and tries to reconcile the difference between what the United States says it stands for and what it actually does. We hear Baldwin's conflicted, evolving reaction to the Civil Rights movement (including the internal debates about violent vs. nonviolent resistance) and interracial relationships (the hero of Baldwin's novel tells a story about how he and his first serious girlfriend, a white girl, used to leave the site of their trysts individually, several minutes apart, then sit far apart from each other on subway cars). Baldwin tells us what he thinks the carefully constructed images of Doris Day, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ray Charles, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte reveal about how white Americans see themselves and others. We get his take on mid-century American attitudes towards the Horatio Alger myth (exactly that, a myth), capitalism (a way of putting numbers above all else), mainstream entertainment (a narcotic) and the possibility of reconciliation between the races (slim, unless whites come to grips with the full impact of slavery and Jim Crow). And he treats us to snippets of highly personal film criticism that searches movies for evidence of the mentality of the culture that made it. The highlight is a bit where Baldwin describes a black audience's reaction to the scene in Stanley Kramer's interracial buddy movie "The Defiant Ones," where Tony Curtis' white chain gang inmate falls off a train and Poitier's character leaps off to help him: the crowd yelled at Poitier, "What are you doing?" Peck miscaculates, I think, in lifting us out of the 20th century and linking many of Baldwin's observations about his own time to events and cultural developments that occurred after his death. Mixed in with the historical footage and photos and the scenes from old movies are bits from trashy daytime talk shows and reality TV shows, and images that allude to the financial meltdown of 2008, the Ferguson uprising, Barack Obama's election, and the presidential campaign of 2016. These elements don't damage the movie too terribly. But they do break the spell Peck weaves. And there are times when the present-tense [...]



Office Christmas Party

2016-12-09T15:07:32-06:00

Let’s be generous to “Office Christmas Party” and note that its two directors (whose resume includes “Blades of Glory” and a short-lived sitcom based on the GEICO caveman ads) and six writers (among them, a Borat enabler and the two guys who created “The Hangover”) were onto something when they tapped into our nation’s growing pushback against political correctness. A workplace throwing an early-morning “non-denominational holiday mixer” with a one-drink maximum, as portrayed in the opening scene, is pretty much the on-the-job version of that overtly generic Starbucks yuletide coffee cup that was declared part of the supposed war on Christmas, is it not?  They also recognize that current-day corporate culture regularly rewards those in the upper echelons of power who save money by screwing over the staff with downsizing, lower pay, fewer benefits and greater demands. Who better to represent these modern-day Scrooges than Jennifer Aniston, a veteran of both “Horrible Bosses” films? I would rather see her in “Cake 2: Another Slice” than one more mediocre mainstream movie, but maybe that's just me. But the former “Friends” star’s career choices aren’t the issue here. Comedy is. Something most of us are in desperate need of right now, given the current headlines and the usual spate of downer year-end Oscar hopefuls. Alas, "Office Christmas Party” serves as yet another reminder that allowing your cast to madly improvise (as evident with an unnecessary end-credits blooper reel) instead of actually providing a coherent script with a scintilla of logic often leads to a decline in sustained laughter. Imagine if the iconic toga party in “Animal House” was the entire movie. It might be a kick for a while. But it was so much better coming after the Deltas were about to reach rock bottom and needed to have their rebellious spirits revived with excessive drinking, wild cavorting and acoustic-guitar smashing. Instead, this ragged R-rated wallow in bad behavior, some of which eventually results in exposing naked body parts of people who should definitely be wearing more clothes and not less, comes up with a rather ill-conceived concept to put the plot in motion. Basically, Aniston’s hard-of-nose and sleek-of-hair CEO Carol stomps into the Chicago branch of an internet company called Zenotek, starts tearing down the festive tinsel and threatens to close it because it isn’t contributing enough to the bottom line. The twist is that the office full of insecure geeks is run by her irresponsible and carefree brother, Clay (T.J. Miller of TV’s “Silicon Valley”), who hatches a plan to woo a staid new client (Courtney B. Vance, much more amusing in his Emmy-winning role as Johnnie Cochran on “The People v. O.J. Simpson”) by impressing him with an out-of-control holiday orgy. Highlights include a living manger complete with a rented baby Jesus, an ice sculpture with a priapic spout that suggestively squirts eggnog (responsible for the scene that draws the biggest reaction), water coolers labeled “Tequila,” “Vodka” and “Gin,” and a snow-making machine that at one point accidentally blasts cocaine at the revelers. Assisting in the debauched excess is a rather subdued Jason Bateman as Clay’s newly divorced right-hand man with an unrequited crush on Olivia Munn’s sexy brainiac, who is on the verge of a discovery that will forever change the internet. But first things first, as she and Bateman have to dress up in chubby snowmen costumes and bounce their bellies together on the dance floor.  It takes a certain kind of film to waste “Saturday Night Live” standout Kate McKinnon’s reliable talents but this would be the one, forcing her into the role of an uptight human-resource enforcer who threatens employees by sneering, “I know why you took a medical leave,” and telling females who don lo[...]



Contract to Kill

2016-12-09T09:18:00-06:00

“Contract to Kill” made me miss the old Steven Seagal, the one who used to stab Oscar-winning actors in the head with gigantic knives and gouge out the eyes of racially stereotyped practitioners of voodoo. The slim, ponytailed and humorless Aikido master who hyper-violently plowed through legions of hapless minions en route to their Big Boss figure. The guy who once directed a film where a two-time Oscar winner had a massive verbal freak-out offscreen so the director could shoot another close-up of himself. At the end of that film, the director gave a long speech about the environment after blowing up an oil rig and polluting the ocean. That’s the Steven Seagal I miss. He was fun.The current incarnation of Seagal is no fun at all. Sure, his movie titles remain as committed to the three-word format as Robert Ludlum novels, but that’s the only thing that hasn’t changed. If you haven’t been checking in with Seagal’s numerous direct-to-video efforts over the past decade, his physical appearance in “Contract to Kill” may come as a surprise: He’s turned into Paul Masson wine commercial-era Orson Welles. This added girth forces the editor to make some unusual choices during fight scenes, because it’s clear Seagal is no longer limber enough to whip all the ass that’s flung at him. As a result, “Contract to Kill” looks edited by a seeing-eye dog using a Cuisinart; you can’t tell who’s doing what to whom in Seagal’s action scenes. If ever there were a brilliant reason to employ CGI, this is it. Instead, we’re stuck with a mess of flailing limbs that don’t appear to belong to the body that’s swinging them. If Seagal has truly gone “Full Orson,” “Contract to Kill” is his “Chimes at Midnight.” Writer/director Keoni Waxman’s script is so heavy with exposition that it plays like the movie’s Wikipedia page. Seagal is saddled with explaining every single thing to the viewer. He talks SLOWLY, and most of what he says is plum terrible. For example, an early jailhouse interrogation scene turns into a five-minute dissertation on how Seagal’s John Harmon figured out the criminal’s modus operandi. It somehow involves Mexican drug lords, Arab terrorists and a plane that was blown up by a bomb. The awfully rendered exploding plane F/X must have cost good money, because “Contract to Kill” repeats the tasteless effect four separate times. As cute little kids play soccer, body parts suddenly rain down on them from the sky. A retired “mechanic” who has worked on both sides of the law, Harmon is called back into service by the C.I.A. He equates his assignment with “a monkey trying to f--k a football,” an analogy I am most definitely stealing. In layman’s terms, however, the job is to perform an assassination, but the identity of the target keeps switching. Assisting him is Matthew Sharp (Russell Wong). Sharp is an ace with a drone, which means Wong spends most of the movie looking at a hand-held screen. One of his drones features a working automatic weapon, which should give Amazon Prime ideas on how to handle complaining customers. Sharp proves to be really lousy with surveillance, though; the villain Jose Rivera (Mircea Drambareanu) immediately sees Sharp’s drone spying on him. Also assisting Harmon is Zara Hayek (Jemma Dallender). Her job is to do what attractive women have been doing in this genre for decades: She takes off her clothes, has a poorly edited, topless sex scene with Harmon, and, despite being able to throw a punch that begins and ends with her still on-screen, is reduced to being a damsel in distress. The cynic in me noticed that, though she’s far smaller than Seagal, the bad guys manage to violently connect with her a hell of a lot more than they do him. On the plus side, Hayek gets to rock a red dress that’s so ratchet it inspired pleasant memories of th[...]



The Brand New Testament

2016-12-09T09:18:00-06:00

Catherine Deneuve romancing a gorilla. That’s one of the head-scratching curiosities in “The Brand New Testament,” Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s goof on the Bible. Is pairing the French screen goddess with the big hairy guy from the zoo a funny conceit? That depends on your sense of humor. For this reviewer, Van Dormael’s film was pure torture from first to last, about as mirthless a comedy as I ever hope to see. But I’m guessing mine is a minority opinion. The movie was well-received when it debuted at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and has won “best film” prizes in a number of European film festivals. So presumably some folks find it screamingly funny. All of which underscores the truism that humor is largely subjective. If ever there was an occasion to lament the star ratings on reviews, this is it. The two stars here are meant to split the difference between my entirely negative opinion of the film—though the project is admittedly very well crafted—and what seems to be the larger consensus. Understand that my dislike of the film has nothing to do with its quasi-sacrilegious premise. Spoofs of the Good Book are fine by me; they just need to be funny, but Van Dormael (“Toto the Hero”) is no Monty Python or Mel Brooks. He imagines God (played with consummate unpleasantness by Benoît Poelvoorde) as a gross guy who lives in a Brussels high-rise, where he spends most of his time at his computer devising new tortures for the human race. His son, JC, once escaped the household and was killed by the people he meant to help. Now God’s only companions are JC’s little sister, Ea (Pili Groyne), and their mom (Yolande Moreau), a mute presence who devotes much of her time to her collection of baseball cards. With an altruistic bent much like her brother’s, Ea sees that God’s hold on humanity has much to do with people’s fear of death, knowledge of which He controls. So the girl gains access to Dad’s files and sends text messages to everyone on Earth telling them how much time they have left to live. While this information is generally liberating, people react differently. One young guy, told that he’s got decades to go, gleefully keeps trying to commit suicide but always finds his plans improbably thwarted. This and other gags are staged with zany acceleration and cartoonish framings of a Mack Sennett slapstick—which no doubt makes them funnier for anyone inclined to laugh in the first place. Eventually Ea discovers that she can escape her Dad’s oppressive household via its washing machine, and she emerges into Brussels with a mission: find six new Apostles to bring the total to 18. That number is the same as the players on Mom’s favorite baseball team. Why new Apostles are needed was never clear to me, but Ea’s search for them comprises most of the film, making it very repetitive. Another thing left unclear is what qualifies the people Ea finds for Apostlehood. They are an odd lot. One, for example, is a guy who delights in killing people with his rifle. One day he shoots a woman who’s not fazed by the bullet because she has a prosthetic arm. Amazed, the guy falls in love with her and gives up his wicked ways. Catherine Deneuve comes into the picture due to Ea’s Apostle hunt. She’s a well-to-do woman in a loveless marriage. Informed of the relatively short time she has left to live, she first hires a teen male prostitute for sex, but he steals her money and bolts. She’s then taken to the zoo, where she develops a crush on an enormous gorilla. Let it be said that Deneuve not only has great beauty but endless dignity; this stupid and farcical situation does nothing to degrade her. Which can’t necessarily be said for viewers of “The Brand New Testament.” It's doubtless some people will find the film funny and clever. They are welcome to i[...]



All We Had

2016-12-09T15:21:41-06:00

Rita and Ruthie are like two peas in a pod. They tag-team shoplift. They run from crisis together. They camp out in their beat-up car, eating French Fries. When they have a place to stay, they sleep in the same bed, spooned up against each other. They look like they could be sisters. But Rita is the mother, Ruthie is the 14-year-old daughter, and they are the central characters in "All We Had," Katie Holmes' directorial debut, adapted from Annie Weatherwax's 2015 novel. Rita makes horrible choices in her life (if they can even be called choices), and she runs away when things get tough, dragging Ruthie (Stefania Owen) behind her. This is where the film starts. Mother and daughter paint a dream-life together: they will move to Boston, in a house with a pool. Stranded in a small town after their car breaks down, with no money and no place to stay, Rita and Ruthie are offered jobs at the local diner (after trying to leave without paying for their food). Marty (Richard Kind), the diner owner, and his transgender waitress niece Pam (Eve Lindley) are kind and generous, and the four create a makeshift family. The film is narrated by Ruthie, and the overstating-the-obvious voiceover narration sounds like it is geared towards a YA audience: "Bullies exist in every small town. People hate what they don't understand." Or: "Why is life always so hard? Especially at 15?" Ruthie's voiceover is our "way into" the "point of view" of "All We Had," but there are many scenes with Ruthie not present at all. Ruthie's struggles to fit in at a new school, the ease with which she gets the approval of a Queen Bee classmate (using the tactics she learned from watching her manipulative mother), are intriguing, but dropped in favor of following Rita through her addiction and recovery issues. Rita starts to date a real estate developer (Mark Consuelos), who gets them into a house, all while Ruthie looks on suspiciously, wondering when the shoe will drop, because the shoe always drops. Luke Wilson plays Lee, an alcoholic widower who frequents the diner. Wilson has been around for a long time now. Associated mainly with Wes Anderson's films, he has also had a wonderful career playing essentially decent stand-up guys ("The Family Stone," "The Skeleton Twins," "Meadowland.") Playing "a decent guy" is not as easy as Luke Wilson makes it look. Most actors would find these roles boring. Where's the twisty dark neuroticism actors love to revel in? Where's the "edginess"? But Wilson knows there is gold in these characters. In "All We Had," when emotions come up in him, they come like an ambush. Suddenly out of nowhere, he realizes he is about to cry and he is scared: Where did THAT come from? This feels like real life, not acting. He doesn't have a huge role in "All We Had" but in every scene he brings a quiet sense of unmistakable authenticity. Eve Lindley is lovely as the small-town waitress who wants to move to New York, biding her time doing craft projects and putting up Youtube videos of herself lip-synching to Queen songs. She's a simple person, but she has a good heart, and she and Ruthie become best friends in a way that is wholly believable. Holmes was very smart in her casting choices throughout. Even secondary or one-off characters are well cast. It is obvious why Holmes would want to play a character like Rita, an irresponsible and reckless child-woman. Rita could still be deemed pretty if you ignored the rough skin, the missing molar, and the panicky eyes smudged around with blue liner. For the most part, Holmes avoids the condescending traps inherent in such a role, and plays it straight. Owen, who was so wonderful in "Coming Through the Rye," is very good here, too, especially when Ruthie feels protective of her mother, giving her mother's bad choices the side-eye, knowing how it all w[...]