Film

Finding Dory, Central Intelligence, Genius, De Palma, Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, The American Side, Our Last Tango

FINDING DORY

3CR-Steve at the Movies-newIf I were the type of critic—and I’m not—to rank films that come out of the same production house (in this case Pixar), I think I’d slot their latest, Finding Dory, immediately after the movie for which it is a sequel, Finding Nemo. And the only reason I might put it just after instead of just before is because too much of Dory feels familiar, beginning with its premise that this time around it’s Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and father Marlin (Albert Brooks) going after their memory-challenged friend Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) as she heads across the Pacific Ocean to California to find the parents she barely remembers.

A fair amount of Finding Dory is told in flashback, the result of small slivers of Dory’s memories of her distant past returning to her, particularly ones involving loving parents Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy). Dory can’t remember the specifics of being separated from them, but that’s what the plot is for, and before the film is done, we know Dory’s entire backstory, traumatic separation experience, and what exactly brought her to the point where she ran headfirst into Marlin in Finding Nemo. The memory fragments are often a bit too conveniently timed—flashbacks revealing a certain key piece of information from Dory’s past seem to arrive just in the nick of time to get her out of a particularly perilous situation. But I’ll admit, the way the pieces fall together is mildly ingenious.

When the initial memory flashes occur, supplying Dory with a small set of clues to her parents’ whereabouts, Marlin and Nemo agree to accompany her, using their old turtle pals Crush (writer and co-director Andrew Stanton) and Squirt as transportation across the ocean. Their travels take them to the Marine Life Institute—a fish hospital that rescues ill marine life, nurses them back to health, and sends them back into the ocean to live out their days. A certain percentage of marine life helped would not survive back in the wild, so the institute keeps them on display as part of an education-heavy aquarium. Naturally Dory is separated from her friend, and she lands up in fish quarantine at the institute, where Dory meets a whole new school of friends.

Easily my favorite new character is an octopus (but with only seven tentacles) named Hank (Ed O’Neill), a seasoned vet of the institute, who sees in Dory a chance to finally escape by getting hold of her ID tag, which identifies her as a someone destined for an aquarium in Cleveland. Hank has no interest in going back into the wild blue drink; he likes his regular feedings and can usually escape his tank when he feels like it. The way he camouflages himself while slithering around the park is a clever and inventive and some of the funniest sequences of the film. I haven’t seen Finding Nemo in a while, but it feels like Dory supplies more laughs than the first movie.

Also on board to assist Dory is a captive whale shark called Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) and her friend Bailey, an injured beluga whale (voiced by Ty Burrell). Through these friendships, we learn how Dory learned to speak Whale, Bailey discovers that his sonar isn’t as broken as he’s been claiming, and the vision-impaired Destiny learns to stop bumping into the walls of her tank, more or less. While Dory struggles to find her parents in the institute (she hopes), Nemo and Marlin are attempting to sneak into the park, looking for Dory, with the help of a pair of thuggish sea lions, voiced by Idris Elba and Dominic West (even the Pixar crew loves “The Wire”).

Finding Dory continues the fine tradition of Nemo of being one of the most visually stunning works in the Pixar collection. Between the underwater offerings and the architectural and natural possibilities of the institute, in scene after scene, Dory has a visual language that never lets up even in those moments when the story grows a bit standard-issue. A sequence set in a marine life version of a “petting zoo” is spectacular in its rendering and in letting us experience what a horror show that must be for the poor animals forced to endure children groping them day after day. (“The hands! The hands!”)

There are none-too-subtle messages about being different and finding that one thing you’re really good at. (For Dory, apparently, that is NOT thinking before she acts, which some see as being especially bold.) But really Finding Dory is a colorful adventure story, complete with a car chase and monster squid attack. Having also helmed Wall-E and Finding Nemo, Stanton (who co-directed this with Angus MacLane, a longtime Pixar animator who also has directed a pair of Toy Story shorts) has become one of the animation studio’s most reliable filmmakers, especially in the story department. (He’s contributed to the scripts of all the Toy Story films and Monsters Inc. as well.)

Even I was surprised how much more emotionally invested I found myself in Dory’s plight, perhaps because she’s not only attempting to reunite with her parents but also because she has to work around this memory issue in the process. Her struggle and search seem almost more desperate, and we’re rooting for her just a little bit more. The film is sweet and funny with loads of charm to spare, and despite a few brief lulls, it all works in a wholly satisfying way. And as if that weren’t enough, the opening short Piper might be the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. The biggest bummer about Finding Dory is twofold: we have to wait a year for the next Pixar feature, and that feature is Cars 3.

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE

By casting two of the most popular human beings on the planet as the leads of their film, the makers of Central Intelligence at least know for sure that the film will have some form of appeal. With Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart at the center of the movie, there’s an inherent likability even when there aren’t laughs or plot or character development. “No one goes to a Kevin Hart movie for plot or character development, idiot!” you might say. That may be true, yet they still tend to make money. So imagine if someone actually put him in a film that was more than just a different background for him to stand in front of and riff until our ears are bleeding. The possibilities stagger the mind.

In truth, Central Intelligence is one of Hart’s better recent efforts. Sadly, it’s one of Johnson’s least interesting, as he plays Bob Stone, a once-bullied fat kid in high school who was befriended at a key point of extreme humiliation by Hart’s Calvin Joyner, the most popular kid in their class. Reunited years later on the eve of their high school reunion, Bob and Calvin have both changed in different ways. Calvin is now an accountant who married his high school sweetheart Maggie (Danielle Nicolet), but is unhappy with the way his life has grown stagnant. Bob lost the fat and bulked up to become, well, Dwayne Johnson, but he’s still forever grateful for Calvin’s kindness. They go to dinner, talk about old times, and before long it becomes clear that Bob (who was known as Robbie in high school) is hiding something major about what he does for a living. It turns out he works for the CIA, and depending on who you believe, he either is involved in a case with international ramifications or he’s about to perpetrate a major weapons deal involving some very bad people. Either way, he needs Calvin’s forensic accounting skills to aide him in his mission, and Calvin wants no part of it.

Most of the humor in Central Intelligence stems from Calvin saying “No” every time Bob suggests they do something even mildly dangerous or risky, and buried somewhere deep in the DNA of this screenplay (from Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber) are messages about not being afraid to take chances, thinking and acting outside your comfort zone, and living a life with no regrets. Director Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball, We’re the Millers) has a decent track record when it comes to injecting the slightest amount of heartfelt messages into his comedies, but this one falls flat more often than not thanks to tired bits (like Johnson constantly exclaiming “What! What!” after every third line of dialogue, or Hart just never shutting up.

An impressive guest list of supporting players and cameos doesn’t elevate the proceedings terribly. I felt genuine pain on behalf of the great Amy Ryan, who plays an agent in charge of bringing down Bob. Also on hand are Aaron Paul as Phil, Bob’s former partner; and Ryan Hansen as Calvin’s douchy co-worker. I won’t spoil the two best cameos, but I can tell you they both play the grown-up versions of two of Bob’s fellow classmates, whom he must face at the reunion. Central Intelligence is so close to be even moderately good, you can feel it in your bones.

Even the action sequences are sub-par, and for a movie with Johnson in it, that’s unexpected and genuinely disappointing. If just one aspect of what is on the screen was worked on with the slightest amount of effort, it might have soared. It’s as if the people making this thought “Let’s just put The Rock and Kevin Hart together in a room and let magic happen organically.” It doesn’t work that way, ever, and this film is all the proof you need.

GENIUS

The relationship between a writer and his/her editor is rarely the focal point of a film outside of stories about journalists doing major investigative pieces. But the film Genius is about one of the most famous such pairings, that between Scribner’s legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law), who worked together on Wolfe’s first two novels Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. Told primarily through the eyes of the economical Perkins, it’s clear that the life and editing lessons he attempted to teach to Wolfe were both critical and largely ignored by the brilliant author who held to the philosophy that “More is more,” in both writing and living, regardless of who he hurt.

The specifics of their working relationship are exhaustively documented—Wolfe would pour his guts and emotions on the page, and the two of them would go line by line through thousands upon thousands of words, often reducing an entire page into just a handful of words. Perkins would often do so despite admitting that the longer, more flowery version of the work was beautiful and eloquent beyond words. But believing Wolfe’s word that he wanted critical and popular success, Perkins edited accordingly, and the resulting, seemingly endless process was akin to giving birth every night.

In the early scenes of Perkins and Wolfe working side by side to craft Look Homeward, Angel, the movie has a wonderful, harrowing flow that feels like the type of controlled chaos that often results in a qualified masterpiece. Perkins operates at such an even keel (perfect for an actor like Firth) that he somewhat balances out Wolfe’s manic, flailing demeanor. Their partnership is often threatened by Wolfe’s lady friend, Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), a costume designer who left her husband and family to be a professional muse. She is particularly threatened by the closeness Wolfe has with Perkins, because she’s fully aware that Wolfe will drift to the person in his life who delivers creative results, which is increasingly becoming Perkins.

Perkins also has a family (including playwright wife Louise, played by Laura Linney, one of the few American actors in the production) whom he frequently must ignore in order to keep all hours with his client. At the point in the film that deals with the editing of the monster manuscript that becomes his second novel, Wolfe goes from eccentric genius to celebrity cliché, and the story gets decidedly less interesting. It’s not that watching a movie about an artist who falls to pieces can’t be interesting, but first-time feature director Michael Grandage (the British theater director and producer who won a Tony in 2010 for directing the play Red) treats Wolfe’s transformation from Southern charmer and great man of letters to selfish, paranoid, substance-abusing, womanizing asshole as if he invented the persona.

I happen to think Jude Law is a phenomenally underrated actor year after year, but he goes flying so far off the rails in his portrayal of Wolfe that I grew to absolutely loathe his over-enunciated Carolina accent, coupled with textbook drunken, lumbering walk and slurred speech. Even if that’s exactly how Wolfe behaved, on screen it comes across as paint-by-numbers acting, something I’ve rarely, if ever, seen Law guilty of prior. His Cold Mountain co-star Kidman doesn’t fare much better, but I felt the flaws here were more in the severely underwritten and oversimplified nature of her character and less about performance.

Working from a screenplay by John Logan (based on the biography Max Perkins: Editor of Genius by A. Scott Berg), Genius works best when it concentrates on Perkins. Historically, Wolfe is the more interesting subject, but Perkins makes for a more nuanced movie character. The exchanges with his frustrated wife are believable; they’re marriage is strained but not on the rocks. He knows he’s being a terrible father and husband, but he also knows writers like Wolfe come along so rarely that to put them off would be criminal—and this from the man who discovered, edited and published F. Scott Fitzgerald (played here in his post-fame agony by Guy Pearce) and Ernest Hemingway (still in his adventuring prime, as portrayed by Dominic West).

Films about artists, especially ones that show the artistic process (of which editing is a key component for writers), are tough to get made and even tougher to make cinematic. Genius is far from a complete failure. It does a remarkable job of capturing the give and take, the heated negotiation between author and editor in a way I’ve never before seen done. And when the movie sticks to the work, it’s a rousing success. But the downslide in the quality of the production is noticeable and speedy when we enter the final third of the story, when Wolfe gets famous, rich and so full of himself, he begins to believe that Perkins has been stifling the quality of his novels with such severe cuts. He commits the cardinal sin of getting precious about his words, and he pays the price for it.

I was rooting for Genius to pull it out in the end, but it never quite does. It’s a closer call than you might expect, and perhaps the filmmakers’ ambition for tackling the complex Wolfe as a subject earns them points, but the final work just doesn’t hold together the way it needs to. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

DE PALMA

There’s not much more to say about the documentary De Palma, a film-by-film conversation with filmmaker Brian De Palma, beyond the fact that it’s wildly entertaining and highly amusing. De Palma was clearly born to tell stories about his career, some of them wildly inappropriate, with a bravado that says “I’ve been doing this so long, I don’t care who I make look bad, including myself.” Although one suspects that De Palma has told some of these stories at countless cocktail parties over the decades, having them extracted and compiled by co-director Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow feels essential.

With very few exceptions, nearly every film in De Palma’s catalog is covered to some degree, and he readily admits that a great number of them were flops, either critically or financially—often both. From his early post-film-school days, palling around with Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, De Palma speaks with great fondness about his early indie works such as Hi, Mom, The Wedding Party, and Greetings (all made in 1968-70), but he began to gravitate toward the more genre-oriented work that brought him his earliest success in films like Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Obsession and his first blockbuster, Carrie.

With each new film discussion, De Palma weaves in details about his dedication to technique and coming up with a visual language that became easy to spot and, for some, a source of contention. De Palma digs into the claims that he “ripped off” certain tricks from Alfred Hitchcock; De Palma maintains that he’s one of the few filmmakers who admits to being influenced by Hitchcock and actually uses the great master’s tools in his own movies, in such great works as Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double, and in more recent years in Raising Cain, Snake Eyes and Femme Fatale (yes, he does discuss his use of split screen).

Not surprisingly, the film spends a great deal of time on De Palma’s most influential works. The section on Scarface deals almost as much with the impact the film had on hip-hop culture as it does with the actual film (although the story about kicking writer Oliver Stone off the set is priceless); while the section on the first Mission: Impossible films opens up a fascinating window into the mind of Tom Cruise. Naturally, I wanted two hours on just the making of The Untouchables, a film that changed the way I looked at the city I’d moved to just a year before its 1987 release.

As any filmmaker would, De Palma takes the opportunity in the interviews that make up this movie (he is the only interview subject) to defend some of the misconceptions about his work. His points on such maligned works as Casualties of War and The Bonfire of the Vanities are genuinely passionate, if not always convincing. He also addresses charges of exploitation and misogyny, but with a minimal amount of conviction. He simply states that he likes the way women move, which is meant to explain the reason he features them naked so often, but it doesn’t quite get us to an explanation of the angle we see the giant drill go into its victim in Body Double. I saw that film as a horny high schooler, and even I knew that phallic weapon was fucked up. I also wish the makers of the doc had asked (or included) De Palma about the rumors that he directed adult films in his financially strapped years. I think he would have made substantive connections between them and his commercial work. But he does talk about directing Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” video, so that’s cool.

De Palma is just a man in a chair and a whole lot of film clips, and sometimes that’s all you need, especially with clips featuring the work of Brian De Palma and ones from the films that transformed him into the artist he became. He’s quick to laugh at the absurdity of the situations in which he’s been involved (both in front of and behind the camera), the studio peons who have attempted to manipulate his work, and others in power that tried to tell him how to make a movie. He didn’t always win the battles, but he never gave up the fight, and sometimes the films paid the price. He’s vocally not happy with the way some of his works turned out, but he learned valuable lessons from each failure and worked to make better films as a result. De Palma is a terrific learning experience, a cautionary tale, and an inside-showbiz account that you can’t get anywhere else. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

In honor of the documentary De Palma, the Music Box will feature special screenings of some of the director’s most iconic films, most of which will be show in 35mm prints, including Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed To Kill, Scarface, Carrie, Blow Out, Body Double, Carlito’s Way, and a rare, one-time-only, 70mm screening of The Untouchables on Wednesday, June 22, at 7:30pm.

RAIDERS!: THE STORY OF THE GREATEST FAN FILM EVER MADE

Yes, this documentary has been floating around the festival circuit for more than a year, and it features a lovely segment about an event I attended (Butt-Numb-a-Thon) at which the shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark by a group of Mississippi kids was first played in front of a large crowd. But the real reason this Adaptation touched me so deeply when I first saw it was that my brother and I used to do something very similar in our youth.

My family was the first on the block to own a VCR and video camera, and my brother and I used to make “original” episodes of “Star Trek” and “Buck Rogers” in and around our home, sometimes with our friends. Our crowning achievement was an entire sequel to The Empire Strikes Back, made some time in the three years between that film and Return of the Jedi. I don’t know where that tape is, but it’s out there. The one thing we never considered doing was remaking something, which in retrospect would have been so much easier on our young brains. So watching a good portion of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation for the first time at BNAT, it tapped into a very specific young film fan mindset at the time, which was that it wasn’t enough to love these movies and television series; we had to be a part of them.

Watching childhood friends Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala (who directed the Adaptation) and Jayson Lamb find unbelievably creative ways to either re-create scenes from Raiders or find clever workarounds is what I will never forget about that first viewing (I saw their complete film a couple years later). The film led to an extended feature in Vanity Fair and eventually a book chronicling the kids’ ambitious and years-in-the-making adaptation. And now we have Raiders!, a film that not only covers much of the ground the book did, but adds a significant update to the story, one that involves “finishing” the Adaptation by finally getting to shoot a major action sequence 30 years later, one they effectively skipped for their version.

The doc’s co-directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen move back and forth between chronicling the original project and the labor-intensive process in shooting the sequence in which Indiana Jones (played by Strompolos) fist-fights an oversized, shirtless German, which leads to the big explosion of a fighter plane. The now-grown men completing their film risk life and limb, financial ruin, and their day jobs in order to get this sequence completed, and it’s as tense and unnerving as any Hollywood production.

Not that the original Mississippi production was any less interesting, and the kids (and doc filmmakers) have the outtakes to prove it. Filmed over summer vacations across seven years (so let’s just say the Indy from the beginning of the film looks and sounds a lot different from guy who finishes it), the Adaptation is the living embodiment of commitment, one that, years later, Steven Spielberg himself watched and praised. But there were personal struggles among the key cast and crew, and even a love triangle involving Strompolos and Zala that destroyed their friendship and took years to get over. But the best material involves simply watching the love of this classic film take over and drive their formative years. They never dreamed anyone would see this film; it wasn’t about that. And they fact that these genuinely good people have become famous from this is almost more extraordinary.

You’d seriously have to hate movies or hate life to not be moved and thoroughly entertained by Raiders! It’s one of the funniest movies you’ll see all year, and certainly one of the most touching for film lovers who have ever considered making their own movie or been tempted to pay tribute to your favorite movie. The doc features some great interviews with key players involved in the making of the Adaptation, as well as people who aided and abetted in the discovery of it years later. Raiders! is a love letter to fans who create love letters to the movies they adore. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

As a special programming bonus at the Music Box, a one-time double feature of the Raiders! documentary and Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation will play this Sunday, June 19, at 2pm and 4pm, respectively, and will feature an in-person Q&A with Chris Strompolos (Indiana Jones himself). You should not miss this!

THE AMERICAN SIDE

I was impressed, if for no other reason, with the ambition behind this Buffalo-based indie crime thriller from writers Jenna Ricker (who also directed) and Greg Stuhr (who stars). The American Side is set with the backdrop of Niagara Falls where a curious suicide has taken place, one that is being investigated by private detective Charles Paczynski (Stuhr). Like many modern stories about gumshoes, this one is largely overwritten and unnecessarily complicated, but that’s par for the course because the plot isn’t really the point. The twist with The American Side is that it dives headfirst into the mysteries surrounding the designs of engineer and futurist Nikola Tesla and subsequent suppression of his ideas by all manner of clandestine organizations during his time on earth (he died in 1943).

Paczynski is more of a “catch-a-cheating-husband” kind of private dick, so naturally the rich and powerful people that are after a series of missing designs underestimate him at every turn, including the likes of Matthew Broderick as a rich Tesla enthusiast, and Robert Forster, as another type of enthusiast, who seems more about the hunt than actually building some of these legendary inventions that might solve the world’s power issues or be able to transport things from one place to another. Janeane Garofalo also shows up as an agent charged with protecting Paczynski and a mysterious woman (Alicja Bachleda) who seems to have more than a working knowledge of some of Tesla’s long-lost designs, which she claims to have destroyed.

The American Side is just strange and spirited enough to hold your interest and keep you guessing (assuming you can follow along, which is maybe 50 percent likely). I love that amid all of this talk of world-altering designs, many of the characters get the most excited talking about the history of people going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, especially from the far more dangerous American side. Stuhr is actually quite convincing as a modern-day private detective, who still talks like he’s a transplant from the late 1930s. It doesn’t hurt that the film’s femme fatale is played by Camilla Belle as Broderick’s sister, who seems quite unsure where her loyalties lie.

Fans of Tesla mythology—and I know there are many of you out there—will probably get a kick out of just how deep The American Side gets into his story and suspected impact in the scientific community. And it adds a fun science-fact/fiction layer to the proceedings that allows the film to feel fresh in such a tried and true genre. Throw in a completely off-the-wall cameo by Robert Vaughn, and you’ve got something that, at the very least, makes me curious what filmmakers Ricker and Stuhr are up to next. It’s always a treat to see promising talent, who have both been on the fringe for a while, finally show us what they are truly capable of. The film opens exclusively in the Chicago area at the Wilmette Theatre.

Star and co-writer of The American Side, Greg Stuhr; director Jenna Ricker; and producer Mary Henry will be on hand for the screenings today at 7pm, and Sunday, June 19, at 2pm.

OUR LAST TANGO

Executive produced by Wim Wenders (Pina) and directed by German Kral (The Last Applause), Our Last Tango is yet another unique documentary about the world of dance. The film tells the story of arguably the most important and compelling duo in the history of the tango, Argentinian dancers María Nieves and Juan Carlos Copes, whose artistic and personal history goes back decades. With an emphasis on breathtaking camera work and lusty music, the filmmakers not only present the story of this legendary duo, they also re-create portions of it using the very style of dance they helped to popularize.

Using other tango dancers as stand-ins, the story of Nieves and Copes is told during a series of separate interviews with the primaries, who are not speaking to each other. We hear about their lightning-bolt first meeting, which is reenacted by the younger dances playing the couple. But we’re also shown the rehearsals for these re-creations, often with Nieves looking on and offering advice to her counterpart about the style of dance 40-50 years ago. Nieves states early on that her only regret concerning her professional relationship with Copes was that it got personal, something that lead to many troubles in both their lives over the years. Copes was a womanizer, sure, but he also saw Nieves as his discovery more than a romantic partner. Eventually, being hurt so often turned Nieves cold toward true love, and she began to have affairs as well, which strangely seemed to emotionally even out the duo and brought them back together as a great team.

The young dancers portraying the youthful couple are sublime and quite stirring as both performers and actors, and the staging is simple yet still manages to stir a wellspring of emotion in Nieves. The filmmakers take her from one old dance hall to another and have her walk through them to see how different or rundown they’ve become. This almost felt like an exercise in getting her weepy, and often it works.

In addition to the re-creations, there’s a great deal of archival footage of Nieves and Copes in their prime, moving as one, sometimes so quickly that it appears genuinely dangerous, especially in one well-known routine involving an intricate dance on top of a very high table. Nieves admits that she was always petrified doing that number, no matter how many hundreds of times they performed it.

It becomes clear at some point that Our Last Tango is leading to something, perhaps a reunion or maybe simply a resolution of differences (I won’t ruin the ending). But even if the film had remained just two people talking in separate locations about their shared history, the movie would have been exceptional. So masterfully shot by cinematographers Jo Heim and Félix Monti, the screen pulsates with life and color and energy that you rarely find to this degree, even in other films about dance (take that, Step Up movies!). It’s a passionate remembrance with only a hint of sadness for bygone days, and there is enough scandal, bitterness and jealousy to fill a telenovela. Most importantly, it’s another great achievement in filmmaking about dance from Wenders and Kral. The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Categories: Film, Screens, Uncategorized

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