This Week in Art House Cinema: Operation Avalanche, White Girl and more

3CR-Steve at the Movies-new It’s been a busy week in film. We took a look at Deepwater Horizon, which is a textbook example of how to make a make a disaster movie in modern times. We also reviewed Tim Burton’s new film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and found it to regal but creepy. We think it’ll either be a gateway drug of goth horror for teens or it’ll frighten them from the genre forever. We also talked about the Kristen Wiig and Zach Galifianakis fronted goofy heist comedy, Masterminds, which is solid cinematic comfort food. Some other interesting movies came out this week as well. Let’s talk about them. Photograph courtesy of Lionsgate Photograph courtesy of Lionsgate

Operation Avalanche

To be 100 percent clear, Operation Avalanche, the latest film from writer-director Matt Johnson (The Dirties), is not a found-footage film; it’s a fake documentary that takes real-life events, blends them with made-up material, and tells it all from a fictitious point of view rather masterfully. Sounds confusing, I know, but it’s not. Operation Avalanche is about a couple of low-level CIA agents (Johnson and co-star Owen Williams) circa 1967, who are placed at NASA as a documentary film crew assigned to uncover whether or not the space agency is on target to complete JFK’s promised moon landing sometime in the 1960s. When the agents find out that NASA does not think it can safely land a craft (and therefore an astronaut) on the moon, they concoct a scheme with the CIA to produce fake moon-landing footage they can broadcast while the lunar landers safely orbits around the earth. The scheme seems like it would be fun to carry out, until things get scary and downright dangerous as the launch nears, and it becomes unclear whether the footage will be used or not. The pretense of the fake documentary is that not only is the team creating a moon-landing scenario, but they want to document their endeavor, partly for job security and to hopefully advance their careers. What’s fairly incredible about Operation Avalanche overall is that a great deal of what we see is real or re-created so seamlessly with minimal special effects that you can’t tell what is genuine and what is manufactured. The real-life filmmakers actually did interview NASA employees under the guise of being a documentary film crew, to the point where the movie’s plot would sometimes be altered based on topics brought up during the unscripted interviews. There’s even a section of the film where the CIA agents go to London to visit Stanley Kubrick on the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey to get advice on special effects. And somehow these knuckleheads found unlicensed on-set footage of Kubrick and inserted themselves into said footage, rather than hire an actor to play Kubrick. Strictly as a filmmaking exercise, this movie is a gem of great ideas on how to make a movie by being sneaky as hell. But that doesn’t always translate into an actual great movie. Thankfully, Operation Avalanche is not only sly but an unexpectedly tense spy thriller as well, featuring one of the best first-person car chases I’ve ever seen. Things progress from wacky to life threatening rather quickly, and soon, Johnson’s reckless behavior that got them into this project to begin with threatens to blow up in their faces, as a suspected Russian mole within NASA comes to the surface and exposes everything. Johnson and his team’s primary mission is to make everything appear authentic, and on that front, they succeed thanks to a slightly weathered film look, rather rough hand-held moments (although no motion-sickness moments should occur), and an overall amateur production value that only serves the overall piece In a strange way, Operation Avalanche is a film that shouldn’t even exist, yet here it is, defying the odds and telling a compelling story about a fake moon landing in a mostly believable manner. The movie is often quite funny, and by the time things get scary, you’re already hopelessly addicted to the plot, and we care a great deal about the fates of these ambitious (to a fault) agents. For a taste of something new and mostly original, give this one a shot. This film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Photograph courtesy of Nordisk Film Photograph courtesy of Nordisk Film

A Man Called Ove

Based on the best-selling novel by Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove is the deceptively simple story of an elderly Swedish gentleman who could be considered the living embodiment of the word curmudgeon. But as we dig deeper into both the man he is and the man he was, we discover a deep and soulful individual who has been crushed down by random, terrible acts of fate. The Ove of today (played by Rolf Lassgård) lives in a small gated community, which he polices like a hawk, ready to swoop down and stamp out any wrongdoings. When a young couple with two small girls moves in next door, Ove is mortified at their attempts to befriend him, but it’s clear to see that Iranian-born wife, Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), is determined to get through to him. As Ove observes the couple, he begins to have extended flashbacks to his childhood and young adulthood (Filip Berg plays Ove as a young man). He had a moving relationship with his father, one that might have been the only significant personal connection of his childhood. But it was as a young man that he met his future wife, Sonja (Ida Engvoll), who quite simply made him a better man and made life worth living. But life with Sonja was not always easy, though no fault of her own, and Ove fought hard to make her existence as pain free as possible. Ove found comfort in patterns and routines, a truism that carried him deep into adulthood. His perimeter check of the neighborhood was the same every day; he’ll only drive a Saab automobile, so when his neighbor and best friend gets a BMW just to spite Ove, the two men simply stop talking. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ove likes to talk to his now dead wife’s grave stone, which is about as conventional and tedious as A Man Called Ove ever gets. But as he and Parvaneh do become closer (she even leaves her kids with him on occasion), Ove begins to warm to the idea of being a more useful member of his small community. No matter how social Ove becomes, he never gets over his disgust with the “white shirt,” a sweeping term for anyone in a position of authority over him (in theory). They existed when he was a young man being forced out of his house, and the pop up again threatening to take his stroke-ridden neighbor to a state-run facility. While the film begins to generate a group-hug vibe at this point, director Hannes Holm (Behind Blue Skies; The Reunion) manages to keep the near-perfect balance between humor and drama in a work that could have gone horribly wrong. Actor Lassgård brings a necessary dramatic weight to Ove and never plays a scene for laughs, which is not the same as saying the film is humorless, which it most definitely is not. The funny is well earned, and the filmmaker parcels them out carefully so as not to ruin the overall mood of A Man Called Ove, a film that captures the spirit of the book and translates it beautifully to the big screen. I wish a few troubles in Ove’s life didn’t wrap up nicely by the end of the film. This film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema. Photograph courtesy of FilmRise Photograph courtesy of FilmRise

White Girl

Every few years, a film comes along that gives us a fairly accurate, usually devastating, portrait of the place of young people in the world. Quite often, these films are set in the world of teenagers or early 20-somethings, and they open up to the mainstream a small window into the a largely untamed world of sexual freedom, drug and alcohol experimentation, and a keen sense of how to play adults (especially parents) into giving them enough money to maintain the untamed lifestyle for far longer than they ought to. Larry Clark’s Kids is an extreme example of this kind of film, but not all of these films are about borderline homeless youngsters, existing (and sometimes living) on the streets. In writer-director Elizabeth Wood feature debut White Girl, she throws a spotlight on a young woman who seems to come from a loving, perhaps well-off family and is moving into her own place for the first time in New York City, in a sketchy Queens neighborhood where drug dealers ply their trade right below her window. Working as an intern during the summer before college starts, Leah (Morgan Saylor from “Homeland”), a bleach-blonde party girl who rarely hesitates to do any type of drug, and roommate Katie (India Menuez) get friendly with the local dealers in hopes of scoring free drugs, and before long Leah is dating and sleeping with Blue (Brian “Sene” Marc), effectively the head of the small crew in the neighborhood. She’s also occasionally hooking up and snorting coke with her rich boss (Justin Bartha) in his office. Wood is smart enough not to cast any judgement on Leah’s behavior, but that’s not going to stop some audiences from being more than a little shocked at what is being shown on screen. White Girl (which refers to Leah, as well as being a nickname for cocaine) doesn’t flinch when it comes to fairly explicit sex and a whole lot of drugs being done. For a brief moment, we believe Leah might allow this relationship blossom into something that pulls her out of the reckless life, but when Blue gets put into jail, she appoints herself the one who finds him a worthy lawyer (Chris Noth) to get him out. But taking that route leads to all sorts of additional trouble, and as cliche as it might sound, the film is about Leah going down a rabbit hole in a short amount of time, and us wondering how or if she’ll be able to climb out. Saylor goes beyond fearless with her portrayal of the someone naive, but clearly intelligent Leah. She enters into some fairly terrifying situations, without a complete sense of just how dangerous the world and people around her can get. She has the type of face that is perfectly readable, but it’s also tough to tell what she’s thinking quite often. The film dips its toe into deeper issues regarding race and class, and, for example, how Leah being a white female allows her certain advantages that her Latino boyfriend doesn’t have. White Girl finds a way to be difficult to watch at times but impossible to take your eyes off. In the end, the powerful acting and the authenticity of the performances and situations win the day, but don’t expect to leave the film unscathed. It’s a small but critical film telling a soul-shaking, vital story that no parent wants to hear (let alone see), but every one of them should know. The movie isn’t going strictly for shock value, but that doesn’t stop it from being shocking. It’s an impossible film to shake, and I hope that Wood doesn’t lose her edge as a director or writer as she moves forward, because there simply aren’t enough risk takers of this magnitude working today. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. White Girl lead actress Morgan Saylor will be present for audience discussion on Friday, Sept. 30 at 8:30pm, and Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8:15pm. Photograph courtesy of Grasshopper Film Photograph courtesy of Grasshopper Film

Don’t Blink—Robert Frank

Robert Frank might not be a beatnik photographer, but he sure did photograph a whole lot of beatniks, including such luminaries as Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac (with whom Frank worked on the feature film Pull My Daisy). Frank was best known for his portrait work, showing the faces of Americans that were often deemed by conventional photographers as less than desirable. He not only saw their beauty, but he photographed them in situations where they often didn’t realize they were being observed, not smiling, not posing, just existing in whatever their natural setting happened to be. His renowned collection “The Americans” is prime example of some of his best early work. In director Laura Israel’s (Windfall) Don’t Blink—Robert Frank, there’s an attempt made to structure the movie like a collection of Frank’s own work—disjointed, disconnected, but somehow still making sense in its general themes of isolation, frustration, and being underappreciated as an artist. Told in a decided non-chronological fashion, but still spending the necessary times on his fleeting moments of intersecting with the popular culture, Don’t Blink chronicles Frank’s journey from photography to filmmaking (I’m still quite desperate to see his long-hidden Rolling Stones documentary, Cocksucker Blues, small sections of which are shown here). I particularly loved clips from an older interview in which he is vigorously resisting even being interviewed (he seems a more willing subject in discussions with Israel). Juxtaposing with film clips and hundreds of breathtaking black-and-white photos, the film also uses music of the periods—from the likes of Tom Waits, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith—being covered to underscore the stories behind the images. What I love about Frank as a subject is that he’s (usually) willing to discuss his philosophies concerning who/what is worthy of being photographed and what is worthy of being printed, framed and hung on a wall. His instincts seem to go against the norm, but the results are undeniable, as they radiate despair, broken promises, and a side of American life that no likes to admit exists. In his prime, he was accused of hating America, but it’s clear that’s not the case. But he does hate what pillars of institutional power have done to the country, and he happy to chronicle the results of such abuses of power with his vivid, stark and difficult work. Don’t Blink reminds us that such artists once existed, who not only talked a tough game about social justice but lived and documented it from the front lines. Israel has an almost impossible job of capturing this man of a million images, but she has pulled together a worthy imprint of his life and work that will, if nothing else, force you to realize that Frank ran with an impressive crew and deserves to be more than a footnote in their stories. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.