All Things Must Pass

(USA 2015)

Record stores! From maybe age 12 until they all just about disappeared, record stores made me cream my jeans. Not the lame corporate mall chains like Camelot, Record Town, and Sam Goody; I’m talking about the special ones that carried stuff you couldn’t get just anywhere—like imports, limited editions, gatefold sleeves, picture discs, promos, and music you didn’t hear on the radio or see on MTV. It was sensory overload: colors, shapes, sounds, and even smells (if the place carried incense or the staff smoked dope). Record stores were crack to me.

The good stores weren’t hard to find, and it seemed like each one had its own thing. Some were small, like Record Runner in New York City, Wax Trax in Chicago, and Shattered in Cleveland. Others were huge, like Peaches, Amoeba Music in Berkeley, and Sam the Record Man in Toronto. These are just a few, of course; I can rattle off a ton of record stores from my youth, and I can also say that I’ve forgotten the names of many others. A few are still around. I loved getting lost in record stores, and I still do.

All Things Must Pass is about one of these places, Tower Records, which was the first of the aforementioned huge record stores. From humble beginnings as a department in a Sacramento drug store in the 1940s, Tower became a worldwide chain. We didn’t have Tower where I grew up, so I discovered it a little later; I’m not sure whether it was Los Angeles or San Francisco. I loved it because it had everything: collectibles, merchandise, books, and oh yeah magazines! It was different from other chains because each store had its own flavor. When I moved to Chicago, I spent a lot of time at both Tower locations in the Loop and in Lincoln Park. I even met Cyndi Lauper at Tower Records.

Colin Hanks, son of Tom (probably the actor I find most unwatchable), does a fine job telling the history of Tower through Russ Solomon, who purchased it from his father in 1961 and made it what it was; celebrities like Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and David Grohl (who did a stint as a clerk at Tower in Seattle); and others who worked there through the years. He shows what vision can accomplish. All Things Must Pass is, not surprisingly, heavy on nostalgia, but it’s not entirely sweet: Hanks ties to Tower’s fall that of the entire record retail industry and explains the factors that brought everything down. There isn’t much finger pointing, but it’s apparent that Tower itself was instrumental in its own demise.

With a title borrowed from George Harrison, All Things Must Pass probably has limited appeal to pre-MP3 kids: Boomers and Gen X, basically. I found it interesting, but it could’ve delved deeper into the circumstances of the downturn. Solomon asking whether his interviewer ran out of questions at the end is an amusingly appropriate finish.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-



(France 2014)

I missed Samba when it played in Chicago last summer—for literally one week in a single theater—before it disappeared. Fortunately, it’s readily available to rent online. Samba was worth the wait even if it isn’t quite what I expected.

Samba (Omar Sy) is an undocumented alien from Senegal who has been living with his uncle and working illegally in Paris for a decade. He washes dishes at a swanky restaurant; the opening scene that leads us through the posh white crowd at the front of the house through the working class staff in the hectic kitchen to the three African dishwashers pushed far to the back in a tiny room says all we need to know before the story even starts. When authorities discover that Samba’s paperwork has expired, he’s held in a detention center for illegal immigrants, where he meets his case worker, Alice (Charlotte Gainesbourg), a sheepish, inept, and we later learn angry woman with a purse full of sleeping pills and a chip on her shoulder. A spark develops into something a little more as the two work on Samba’s case.

Generally speaking, French films tend be more cerebral than action-packed; Samba is no exception. While certainly not an emotional film, it still has a warmth that saves it from getting dull. Samba is an affable though imperfect guy working toward fulfilling his dream to be a chef—he’s just doing it in a country he illegally inhabits. He tracks down a fellow detainee’s woman (Liya Kebede) to relay a message and ends up in bed with her. He gets into a fight or two. He screws up day jobs—my favorite scenes are the ones in which he works with a Brazilian immigrant named Wilson (Tahar Rahim), in particular a reenactment of an old Coke commercial on a scaffold washing windows. Don’t be misled by the trailer: the relationship with Alice is more clumsy than hot and heavy or sexy. Through it all, Samba resorts to humor to get past the many rough spots he encounters.

Samba is a strange romantic comedy/adventure film with an underlying statement that the immigration process—chaotic, pedantic, inefficient, dehumanizing—is absurd. What struck me was that the story has nothing to do with the States, yet its point applies all the same to the American system. Samba also shows that immigration issues are not confined to any one country. The story itself is pretty ordinary, but Sy and Rahim’s performances elevate it to something interesting. 

(Home via iTunes) B-


(USA 1988)

A day off of work is a good time to watch a DVD, so I picked Vibes. Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldblum are both talented performers with long careers sustained in large part by their quirky, so unusual personas (personae?); it stands to reason that each would have a good share of hits and misses—and they do. Vibes is definitely a miss for both of them—a huge one.

Vibes starts out, to use a Lauper song from another movie, good enough: two robbers in the Andes set up the backstory in a short opening. The action shifts to New York City, where psychics Sylvia Pickel (Lauper) and Nick Deezy (Goldblum) meet while participating in a study on paranormal abilities. The scene is promising: Nick can tell where objects have been by touching them, and Sylvia is a medium for a spirit named Louise. The exchanges between the two and their analysts are actually funny. Unfortunately, things slide steadily downhill from there. Con artist Harry Buscafusco (Peter Falk) shows up at Sylvia’s apartment at night and offers her a job under the guise of finding his lost son in Ecuador. Sylvia convinces Nick to join them. The adventure begins.

YAWN! Vibes is painful to watch—fucking painful. The writing sucks—the situations are unoriginal, the story is predictable, and the dialogue is dull. Lauper isn’t funny at all; she’s shrill, clearly inexperienced with acting, and downright grating with her over-exaggerated Queens shtick that she seriously toned down following this bomb (check out interviews of her from 1989 forward and her subsequent acting gigs if you don’t believe me). Aside from her first scene, she shines only when she’s using her voice for something other than reading lines—for example, singing a lullaby to villain Ingo (Googy Gress) and speaking in tongues when a spirit takes over her body after she touches a glowing pyramid that connects her to a past world. As usual, Goldblum’s timing is spot on; but he can only do so much with the material, which is so lame I doubt anyone could have saved it. A romance develops, and it’s laughable because there’s zero chemistry between Lauper and Goldblum—he doesn’t even seem to like her (and according to Lauper’s memoir, he didn’t). The whole thing is dismal.

Vibes initially sounded like a good idea: real actors, including Julian Sands and Elizabeth Peña, signed onto the project. Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel—who had an established track record with comedies like Night Shift, Splash, and Spies Like Us in addition to episodes of sitcoms like The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne & Shirley—started (but didn’t finish) the script. It seemed like a good bet for a light summer comedy (it was released in July or August, as I recall). Vibes no doubt didn’t go as planned. It features some nice scenery, a young and unknown Steve Buscemi as Sylvia’s ex-boyfriend, and Lauper’s arguably underrated single “Hole in my Heart (All the Way to China)”—but that’s about it. I should’ve gone to a movie instead.

(Home via DVD) D-

Band of Robbers

(USA 2015)

Ever wonder what became of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn? Adam and Aaron Nee come up with an answer—in an updated setting—in Band of Robbers, a fresh, inspired, and downright cool take on Mark Twain’s classic characters.

After another stint in jail, Finn (Kyle Gallner) reunites with Sawyer (Adam Nee)—now a small town cop with questionable ethics, a distaste for his brother Sid (Eric Christian Olsen), and a serious Peter Pan complex—and their gang of odd ducks: Joe Harper (Matthew Gray Gubler), Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), and Tommy Barnes (Johnny Pemberton). Egged on by Muff Porter (Cooper Huckabee), a tragic old coot who sits in a nasty chair in a nasty motel room, Sawyer hatches a half-baked plan to snaffle a local treasure from Injun Joe (Stephen Lang), who they suspect stashes it in a pawn shop run by Dobbins (Creed Bratton, who most will recognize from The Office). Things don’t pan out according to plan, of course, sending Sawyer and Finn on one more adventure.

Band of Robbers is a light and entertaining adventure movie. I detest the word ‘cute’ to describe a movie, but that’s exactly what it is—and that’s a good thing. The film is nicely shot and effectively uses color and quick action to keep the mood light even when what’s unfolding is the opposite. The references to Twain’s characters are a bonus, and transplanting them to the current millennium works really well without watering them down; the characters in the film are true to the originals. Sure, liberties are taken—the exact location is never disclosed. A treasure map shows an unidentified winding river, and the scenery vaguely suggests Missouri. However, license plates only say “Drive Safely” and shots of what appear to be California hills in the background (not to mention desert terrain) belie any whiff of the Midwest. I understand the film borrows heavily from Wes Anderson’s Bottle Rocket; having never seen it, though, I can’t comment. Regardless, I was so interested in the story that none of this stuff bothered me.

There’s no profound statement here; in fact, a warning in Twain’s own words appears at the outset of the film: “persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished.” If there’s a moral, it’s simply that everyone must eventually grow up—a sentiment apparent throughout the film. In the end, Band of Robbers is not the same story as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; but if nothing else, it’s a testament to the timelessness and durability of Twain’s characters. That’s enough for me.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

The Mask [Eyes of Hell]

(Canada 1961)

Terrible doesn’t even begin to describe The Mask: the acting, the dialogue, the plot, the sets, the “special” effects—they’re all so wonderfully cheap and dippy in a way that screams “atomic age.” A pervading sense of overblown naive paranoia and a subtext of sexual transgression and drug abuse add to the fun. I loved The Mask for what it is—cinematic junk food.

Mild-mannered Dr. Alan Barnes (Paul Stevens), a psychiatrist, experiments with an ancient tribal mask that a patient (Martin Lavut) warned him about. Barnes quickly falls under the spell of the mask—which looks a lot like a mosaic disco ball version of C-3PO—and morphs into a monster as he sinks into a subconscious world of horror, much to the dismay of his fiancé, Pamela (Claudette Nevins), and his mentor, Professor Quincy (Norman Ettinger). Lieutenant Martin (Bill Walker), hot on the trail of a homicide, has a hunch that the mask is a big clue to the mystery. Can anyone save Barnes before it’s too late?

The mask world, you see, is in 3D. When Barnes submits to his jones for the mask, a commanding offscreen voice bellows, “PUT THE MASK ON NOW!” This little device serves two purposes: it demonstrates the powerlessness of Barnes over the mask, but it also prompts viewers to put on 3D glasses—which were provided:


With the 3D glasses, we get to see what Barnes sees—oooh! The mask world manages to cram every single horror movie dream sequence cliché into each scene—fog, eyeballs, skulls, snakes, fire, spiders, pyres, hands reaching out of the screen, it’s all there. Despite the potential for eyerolling—and there’s a ton—the mask world is trippy and cool even with its pedestrian take on horror. The restored version I saw had a sharp, crisp look. The 3D effect worked surprisingly well. Ed Wood might have envied this one.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-



Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

(USA 2015)

If you were to pull out the chapters on modernism from an art history textbook and shuffle them together with Confidential magazine, the result no doubt would look a lot like Lisa Immordino Vreeman’s Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict. Guggenheim led a colorful life—literally and figuratively—filled with art, sex, and a fair amount of darkness.

With audio from a tape recorded interview—Guggenheim’s last—presumed lost until found in a basement during the making of this film, Guggenheim herself in her clipped, matter-of-fact way discusses her childhood, her time in Paris during the 1920s, her abusive marriage to Laurence Vail that ended in divorce after seven years, her relationship with her two children, her sex life, and her entry into the art world. She hung out with the likes of Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Gertrude Stein. She tricked with, inter alia, Marcel Duchamp, John Holms (not a porn star), Samuel Beckett, and Max Ernst (to whom she was married for a short time). She was among the first to show many artists, including Vasily Kandinsky, Mark Rothko, Robert de Niro, Sr. (father of the actor), Arshile Gorky, and Jackson Pollock, whose “discovery” she was most proud to claim.

For all her antics, though, Guggenheim’s life was not all fun and games. Her father went down with the Titanic when she was 13 years old. Vail “hit” her. Holms, who she said was the love of her life (despite the fact that he was married), died after a routine hand surgery. She had seven abortions. She wound up estranged from her son, Sinbad, and her daughter, Pagette, died under mysterious circumstances at age 40. To top it all off, she had a nose job that didn’t turn out right; she never fixed it because the experience was too physically painful.

Immordino Vreeman does an excellent job balancing Guggenheim’s considerable achievements with salacious details of her life, giving just enough to keep us tuned in. The gossip doesn’t overshadow the fact that Guggenheim, however flawed, was a fascinating woman way ahead of her time. Illuminating, fun, and never a dull moment, I enjoyed Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict very much.

(Music Box) B+

Horse Money [Cavalo Dinheiro]

(Portugal 2014)

I have mixed feelings about Pedro Costa’s Horse Money. From a visual perspective, it’s amazing: Costa and cinematographer Leonardo Simões command light and shadow to create stunningly beautiful scenes in hospitals, industrial spaces, abandoned streets, even on a hill at night. It’s simple but gorgeous. Fucking gorgeous! The visual aspect made Horse Money worth sitting through to the bitter end.

The plot, on the other hand, is another story. Vague, confusing, and very esoteric, I’m not sure what it’s all about. I think—but I’m not sure—Ventura, a revolutionary who sold out for a normal life, is about to die. The film takes us along with him (and his shaky hands) as his life flashes before his eyes—kind of like Jacob’s Ladder. He meets characters from his past and literal demons that haunt him. He must come to terms with the choices he made that brought him to the present before he can let go. The whole thing is dreamlike and stream-of-consciousness. It’s moody, pretty, and unsettling; but it’s often maddeningly difficult to follow. The scene in the elevator—probably the most important in the film—is way too long. It actually made me claustrophobic. I couldn’t wait to get out of the theater.

Maybe Friday evening wasn’t the best time to see something like this—it requires a lot of attention. When I depart this mortal coil, I hope it’s much quicker and less tortuous (and less torturous) than this. Fuck me.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C-


(USA 2015)

“Rosenwald school” is a curious name that sounds like the Jewish equivalent of a Catholic Magdalene home, where unmarried pregnant girls of yore were tucked away to do laundry for nuns until they had their babies. It’s not; it was actually a number of schools for black children built in the American South during the early 20th Century. I never heard of these or the man whose name they bear, Julius Rosenwald. Biographer Aviva Kempner tells his story in a decidedly straightforward manner through photos, narration, clips, and interviews with descendants, historians, and Rosenwald school alums like Maya Angelou and Congressman John Lewis. At the end, we even hear from Rosenwald himself.

Born in Springfield, Illinois, where he lived across the street from the Lincoln home, Rosenwald—who considered himself “a member of a despised minority”—first made a name selling men’s clothes with his cousin. A series of fortuitous events resulted in a partnership with Sears Roebuck in Chicago in 1895. He got rich creating the Sears catalog, the Amazon of a hundred years ago, as one interviewee calls it. Motivated by a number of things—his friendship with Booker T. Washington, Chicago Sinai congregation rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the Jewish concept of tikkun olam (“repair the world”), Washington’s Up From Slavery and William Henry Baldwin, Jr.’s An American Citizen, and a disturbing similarity between the persecution of blacks in the States, particularly the South, and that of Jews in Russia—he started a fund to build schools where the government apparently wouldn’t. He also offered money to build YMCAs in various cities.

Rosenwald’s funding scheme was unique: he paid a third of the cost, with the rest of the funding to be provided (or raised) by the community where the school or YMCA would be built. It worked, and more than 5,000 schools were built. Rosenwald didn’t stop there: he also contributed to housing in Chicago, established the Museum of Science and Industry, and set up a fund for artists and intellectuals. Recipients were in diverse disciplines and included Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Katherine Dunham, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Dr. Charles Drew, and even Woody Guthrie. Rosenwald is intriguing not just for its named subject but also for the subjects it gets into on the side: American civil rights, art, and Chicago history.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B

The Big Short

(USA 2015)

I’m no economist, and, well…math is hard. I get that lax lending practices led to the housing market collapse in 2008, but I sure as hell don’t have a firm grasp on what else contributed to the financial meltdown. With The Big Short, writer and director Adam McKay takes on the courageous and potentially suicidal task of explaining it all, Schoolhouse Rock style—only hopped up on Adderall.

Based on the nonfiction exposé The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, The Big Short follows the intertwined stories of Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a socially inept Metallica-blaring doctor-turned-hedge fund-manager with Asperger’s, a glass eye, and a cyst on his face that bummed me out every time I saw him; douchebag Wall Street trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who doubles as narrator; cynical, boorish, and fictitious Chicken Little hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team; newbie investors Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock); and retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who’s got no love for the business. In one way or another, they all aim to profit from mass calamity—and they succeed. The standouts here easily are Gosling and Carell, who have a natural chemistry and seem to have fun with their parts. Pitt, who plays psychos and goofballs better than anyone (e.g., True Romance, 12 Monkeys, Fight Club, Snatch—need I say more?), has a secondary role, but he’s awesome; I didn’t recognize him right away. Bale, on the other hand, is a bit much—to the point of being a downer.

The story involves dry, technical, and boring financial concepts, usually abbreviations: credit default swaps (CDS), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), NINJA loans—not the stuff that typically generates emotion or drama. McKay uses a number of offbeat but smart gimmicks to explain the basics: celebrity cameos (Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain, to name two), demonstrations (a la Jenga), breaking character, songs and graphics. His approach does the trick, and it’s entertaining. Very much so. However, it’s not perfect: the pacing, though not as frenetic as Wolves of Wall Street, still wore me out by the end. Some questions remain in my mind—like how you can bet against something like the economy. It’s also still unclear how it all happened. To quote the movie, though, “[t]he truth is like poetry, and most people fucking hate poetry;” I think that’s the essence. One thing is certain: McKay is outraged; by showing us that the nonsense continues, he wants us to be, too.

(AMC River East) B-


The Danish Girl

(USA/UK 2015)

On paper, The Danish Girl has everything going for it: a sensationalist plot with real-life characters, weighty and timely subject matter, pretty scenery, nifty period clothes, a love story, and a nice dose of tragedy. Visually, it’s a beautiful film: cinematographer Danny Cohen gives it the soft, muted look of an impressionist painting; the interiors are as alluring as the exterior shots. The setting—the early 20th Century art scene in Copenhagen and Paris—evokes a sense of glamor and romance. The acting is okay for the most part, but Alicia Vikander is outstanding. Still, the sum here is no greater than its parts.

Based on David Ebershoff’s novel based on the life of Dutch artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), the first known person to undergo sex reassignment surgery, and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb (Vikander), The Danish Girl is a good story even if it isn’t historically accurate. One day, Gottlieb asks Wegener to stand in for her model so she can finish a painting; she gives him a pair of panty hose, and he is immediately cozy in them. Thus begins Wegener’s road to becoming “Lili,” as christened by the couple’s friend, Ulla (Amber Heard). Lili becomes Gottlieb’s muse, showing up in her paintings. They sell. Lili accompanies Gottlieb to a ball as Wegener’s “cousin,” and everyone is fooled. Wasn’t that easy, isn’t she pretty in pink?

The Danish Girl is fictionalized, and as a result liberties are taken for time constraints, continuity, and drama. I get that. Nonetheless, this film doesn’t come off as genuine because it oversimplifies and sanitizes the issues it seems to want to bring to light and then gives them superficial treatment. Lili’s transition is too quick, and her adjustment—touched on but not explored—is seamless for today let alone 1926. Redmayne’s portrayal of Lili is silly: he bats his eyelashes and caresses his frocks with all the campy drama Johnny Depp mustered up wearing an angora sweater in Ed Wood. Lili looks like Molly Ringwald, right down to her stylish scarves—the real Lili looked like Oscar Wilde in a dress. Wegener and Gottlieb were more complicated and had a more complex and unconventional relationship. The truth here is so condensed and whitewashed that this might as well be a fairy tale.

The Danish Girl might make you cry, but it’s just not convincing even within the confines of a two-hour film. Too bad, because it could’ve been much more.

(ArcLight) C-