Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
This series features the movie questionnaires and reviews from 2015 published by our site's regular film critics. We conclude with critic Peter Sobczynski, who has reviewed such films as "The Ocean of Helena Lee," "Predestination," "The Salt of the Earth" and "The Taking of Tiger Mountain." His Twitter handle is @petersob13.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
I spent all but the earliest portion of my formative years in Cary, Illinois, a bucolic small town in the northwest suburbs of Chicago that, oddly enough, has never had a movie theater within its borders. It was a perfectly nice town but I was lucky enough to have parents who, even at a young age, took me into Chicago on a regular basis so that I could enjoy the sights of the greatest city on this planet—great museums, giant bookstores, nifty restaurants, Wrigley Field and, best of all, a seemingly endless array of downtown movie theaters and their lavish marquees blinking out their wares.
Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
My father was definitely a movie fan but his tastes tended to gravitate towards older films that he enjoyed when he was younger—World War II epics, programmers featuring the adventures of Charlie Chan and Abbot & Costello and musicals—and was somewhat less adventurous when it came to more contemporary fare. (After sitting through "Blue Velvet"—a long story involving lies, betrayal and an ice show—he turned to me and sincerely asked "Uh, the stuff that people were laughing at—was that supposed to be funny?") My mother has never been much of a movie person—the list of classics that she has either dismissed entirely or never even seen continues to blow my mind—but she, strange as it may seem, probably had more influence on my future taste because every once in a while, something would pop up on the 3:00 Movie on Channel 7 and she would make sure that I watched it because she thought I would enjoy it. As a result, at the age of 5 or so, I was watching and digging the likes of "Duel," "Help," "The Girl Most Likely To" (a hilarious Joan Rivers-penned TV movie with Stockard Channing as an ugly duckling who becomes a beautiful swan via plastic surgery and kills her former tormentors) and "The Producers." (I am convinced that "Easy Rider" was another one but she denies it.) That said, both of them encouraged my ever-growing fascination with film as a child in all imaginable ways—driving me to theaters, picking up copies of "Variety" on the newsstand and not flipping out when their son decided to attempt to make a living out of reviewing movies.
What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
My earliest moviegoing memory—hell, my earliest completely conscious memory period—is of my mother taking me when I was 3 to the Cary-Grove High School auditorium one rainy afternoon to see "Dumbo" and the Road Runner cartoon in which the Coyote dressed up in an ersatz Batman suit at one point. That was it—I fell in love with the movies that day and that love has not wavered a bit, with the possible exception of the two hours that I spent watching "Rent."
What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."
I do not recall any single epiphany that I may have had in this regard. Around the time that I saw "Dumbo," I had already learned to read and before long, I would raid the upstairs children's section of the local library for any books that they might have had that related to the movies—there were some picture books and such—and once I exhausted them, I went to the grown-up area downstairs to check out their books on the subject and further expanded my horizons on the history of the cinema and the people who made the movies. At the same time, I was discovering that not only did the newspapers I looked at daily contain all these neat-looking movie ads, they also had people who were writing about the films as well. By the time I was 8, for example, I was already lugging home the collected works of Pauline Kael and had written a letter to Roger Ebert about the controversy surrounding violence in theaters showing "The Warriors." (Not only did he write back, he even sent free movie passes to boot.)
What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
Even before I became a movie critic, I made it a point to sit through any movie I saw in the theater, no matter how dreadful, to the bitter end in the hopes that there might be something of note. Of the handful that I have bailed on—always on my own time—I think that the first was probably "Problem Child."
What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
The funniest film that I have ever seen, bar none, is the Marx Brothers classic "Duck Soup"—at first I loved it for the slapstick silliness and the awful puns but as time went on, I began to get more of the jokes and loved it even more as a result. Other favorite comedies include, in no particular order, "The Producers," "The In-Laws," "Never Give a Sucker An Even Break," "The In-Laws," "1941," "Modern Romance," "Top Secret," "The Bellboy," "The Blues Brothers," "Love and Death" and "The Manitou."
What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
I am not much of a crier when it comes to movies but I will publicly admit to shedding a tear during "Dumbo," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Vivre Sa Vie" "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" and, ironically enough, "Boys Don't Cry." Additionally, I am always knocked out by the tragic power of "Tess" and find the final shot of John Travolta in "Blow Out" to be one of the most emotionally shattering images I have ever seen in a film.
What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
Assuming that "Rock of Ages" doesn't count, I would have to say "The Shining," even though I have never found it to be that frightening in the conventional sense. That said, it is utterly mesmerizing from start to finish and because it is essentially a film about the horrors of writer's block, it is something that I can relate to much easier than vampires, zombies, mad slashers and the like. However, I have a weird aversion to any scene that includes the sight of someone shaving—even the most innocuous G-rated family film—and was therefore almost on the floor for most of "Sweeney Todd." The other thing that really creeped me out was this commercial they did for "Magic," this psychological horror film with Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist being dominated by his dummy. The movie as a whole is pretty dull but the commercial was absolutely terrifying. Go on YouTube and check it out for yourself—just don't plan on sleeping right for the next couple of days.
What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
It would be easy enough to cite such classics as "Annie Hall" and "Casablanca"—and both are among my favorites—but I find myself gravitating more towards such somewhat more offbeat choices like "The Age of Innocence," the David Cronenberg version of "The Fly," "Reds" and the sadly underrated output of the great Alan Rudolph. Put on the loopy and lyrical likes of "Choose Me," "Trouble in Mind," "Made in Heaven," "The Moderns," "Love at Large" or "Afterglow" and you will find yourself asking two questions afterwards—"Where has this film been all my life?" and "Why isn't he making more movies today?"
What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
A wise man once remarked that the difference between movies and television was that one looked up at the screen during a movie but looked down at it with television. To a certain extent, I suppose I still subscribe to that theory and don't watch a ton of television to this day (and even less now that "Happy Endings" and "30 Rock" are gone) but I would say that if there was one show that broke those preconceptions for me, it was "Twin Peaks."
What book do you think about or revisit the most?
On the non-fiction side, which is where I tend to gravitate, I usually revisit the collected works of Pauline Kael, Mike Royko and Hunter S. Thompson, Stephen King's awesome horror history "Danse Macabre," Danny Peary's three-volume set "Cult Movies" and "Keep Watching the Skies," Bill Warren's mammoth study of 1950's-era sci-fi cinema, at least once a year. On the fiction side, my favorites include "The Bonfire of the Vanities," "The Shining" and anything written by Thomas Pynchon.
What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?Truth be told, it would probably be a three-way tie between Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones. However, not too far behind would be the late, great Warren Zevon—whose tunes were like the kind of tough, sardonic and occasionally tender B movie classics that you dream of stumbling upon on TV while channel-hopping late at night—and Maria McKee, another killer singer-songwriter who is additionally blessed with one of the greatest voices that you will ever hear. (Bonus—she even once recorded a cover of the Carrie Nations hit "In the Long Run.")Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
I saw Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" at an advance screening and was completely blown away by it. A couple of weeks later, there was another screening and I decided to watch it again. I got to the screening room, sat down and just before it began, I thought "Do I really want to sit through this again?" and I just got up and left, no doubt confusing many of my colleagues. The film is genius but I don't think I have seen it again since that first viewing.
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
Only counting theatrical viewings and not counting "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (you don't wan to know), my guess is that it would be either "2001" or "Dazed and Confused."
What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
According to family legend, I apparently nearly convinced my parents to take me to see "Taxi Driver" when I was 5—I probably used the presence of Jodie Foster to convince them it was a Disney movie—until someone finally checked the rating and saner heads prevailed. Thus, my first R-rated movie came on my 9th birthday when, for my annual birthday movie, we went to see "The Blues Brothers." Needless to say, seeing Chicago up on the big screen like that, especially after seeing all the stuff in the news from when they were filming it, was an awesome experience and the film remains a favorite to this day. The only drawback was that this meant that my younger brother got to see his first R-rated movie at a younger age than I did, a fact that continues to rankle me to this very day.
What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
Probably "One from the Heart"—I almost never want to go to the real Las Vegas now because there is no possible way that it could live up to the version that Francis Coppola created on the soundstage. After that, probably "Eraserhead," "The Shining" and everything that Terrence Malick has ever made.
Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?
Brian De Palma is my favorite, bar none. Besides him, I eagerly anticipate the latest works from Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jean-Luc Godard, Quentin Tarantino, Luc Besson, Terrence Malick, James Toback, Cameron Crowe, Joe Dante, Walter Hill and both Francis Ford and Sofia Coppola.
Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?I have made a personal vow to myself to never again sit through a Henry Jaglom film for as long as I live and am seriously considering doing the same regarding Zach Snyder.
What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
Man, there are way too many titles to choose from to answer this question. After all, I am the kind of person who not only loves the universally reviled "Exorcist II: The Heretic" but vastly prefers it to the original. To cite one exceptionally perverse case, I must confess that even though I hold Godard's "Breathless" in the highest regard, I actually prefer the 1983 American remake that Jim McBride did with Richard Gere in the lead role—a gloriously stylized hymn to fast cars, searing passion and the glories of popular culture that was like a Quentin Tarantino film that had the misfortune to come out a decade before anyone knew what such a thing was.
What film do you hate that most people love?
Again, there are plenty of titles to choose from but I must confess that anytime someone tells me that their favorite film is "To Kill a Mockingbird," it is all I can do to keep from screaming.
Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.
This past spring, several colleagues and I conspired to help put on the first annual Chicago Critics Film Festival, an event in which we gathered films that had impressed us at places like Toronto and Sundance and gave them their first area screenings, including such acclaimed titles as "Stories We Tell" and "The Spectacular Now." In addition, we had William Friedkin come on the closing night as our guest of honor and, after many weeks of effort, we were able to finally secure a 35mm print of "Sorcerer," his stunning 1977 reworking of "The Wages of Fear" that had the misfortune to go over-schedule and over-budget and open a week after "Star Wars," as the grand finale. This is a film that I have been obsessed with for years but had only seen via shabby laserdisc and DVD transfers that hardly began to do it justice. To see it on the big screen where it belonged, after more than three decades of anticipation, was like seeing it for the very first time and to then get to sit on stage with him afterwards to talk about its tumultuous history only made the night even more memorable. (There are clips of the Q&A on YouTube, including his priceless response where I ask if he ever saw any of the "Exorcist" sequels—just don't mention to him what I said above about "Exorcist II.")
What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
If I could go through the rest of my life without seeing another 3D movie at this point, I would be a happy lad. (The only exception would be if someone decided to make a 3D IMAX concert film with Shakira, but that goes without saying.)
What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
I kind of miss that sense of anticipation that I used to feel between the moment when the lights went down and the film started playing—that sense of not knowing what is in store. I get it a little bit with the films of people like David Lynch and David Cronenberg—two more faves I should have listed above—but that is about it.
Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
Hell, my best friend and my mother both hate "2001" in ways you can't believe (and I certainly can't) but I still get on with both of them pretty well, so I would have to say no.
What movies have you dreamed about?
"Return to the Blue Lagoon."
What concession stand item can you not live without?
Call me a classicist, but a bag of hot popcorn topped with an obscene amount of real butter does it for me.
Big Game **
There are times when it seems impossible that it could possibly exist as a real thing and not just as a parody trailer that accidentally got inflated to feature length. Alas, it never quite manages to live up (or down) to its nutty premise but that isn't to say that it doesn't have its moments here and there.
"Chappie" is such a misconceived work from a once-celebrated science-fiction visionary that I think that all the people who were lambasting the Wachowskis a few weeks ago over "Jupiter Ascending" now owe them an apology. [...] An exhausting slog through overly familiar cliches that is nowhere near as profound or touching as it clearly thinks it is.
A Christmas Horror Story **1/2
Considering that the film is the product of three separate directors and four screenwriters, this is a fairly ambitious approach to take and the end result is surprisingly coherent in the way that it brings the various stories together. The problem is that by doing it this way, the film is constantly undercutting its own ability to generate any real suspense.
Coming Home ***1/2
Gong Li is one of the great actresses of our time, […] and her work here is pretty much spellbinding in the way that she dials down her undeniable beauty and screen charisma to embody Feng and her mental difficulties without overdoing it in the manner of someone angling for an Oscar nomination.
The Connection ***1/2
Instead of a standard thriller with the requisite number of action beats, [Cedric Jimenez] takes a more purely procedural approach, more interested in the accumulation of details surrounding the case and the people involved—in that regard, it is closer to David Fincher's masterpiece "Zodiac" than anything else.
The screenplay contains plenty of the casual nihilism and physical/emotional cruelty of [Bret Easton] Ellis's work but since it doesn't connect with viewers, either as serious drama or as dark satire, it all just feels hollow and ugly.
Michael Almereyda is an interesting and ambitious filmmaker (his 1994 vampire film "Nadja" is one of the better contemporary riffs on the genre) who doesn't work as often as he should. Therefore, it is doubly depressing that "Cymbeline" never quite catches fire, either as a film or as a conceptual experiment.
Dawn Patrol 1/2*
So rotten in so many ways that there is a temptation to look at it at first as some kind of demented deadpan spoof of films that celebrate grotesque macho codes above all else, and it is only with a gradual sense of horror that it becomes apparent that not only are we meant to take it seriously but that it thinks that it is saying something profound.
Do You Believe *1/2
Subtle as a sledgehammer to the toes and only slightly more entertaining, "Do You Believe?" will no doubt play well with viewers already predisposed towards liking it because it has been designed to reconfirm their already deeply-felt beliefs rather than doing anything that might cause them to think about or challenge those beliefs in any meaningful way.
Echoes of War *1/2
There are some good actors here but since they have been given neither compelling characters to play nor plausible dialogue, they more or less look exactly like what they are—a bunch of actors stuck in uncomfortable outfits uttering largely unspeakable dialogue.
By telling the tale of a woman yearning to escape such a situation despite the overwhelming odds, "Felix and Meira" is essentially the inverse of "Fill the Void" from a dramatic standpoint. Sadly, it turns out to be the inverse of that film from a qualitative standpoint as well.
The Forger **
In essence, "The Forger" is a collision between two time-honored screen genres—the heist thriller and the sentimental tragic tearjerker—but in this particular case, the ensuing cinematic Reese's Cup is well near indigestible since the two parts never really work, either separately or together.
The film tries to juggle two story lines […] in the form of a near-musical in which the characters are often found singing the notable hymns and spirituals of the time. It sounds interesting in theory, I concede, but it is much less so in practice because this is one of those movies that is as dull as it is well-meaning and man, is it ever well-meaning.
While I cannot in good conscience recommend the film to members of high school theater departments, I will say that groups that do choose to watch it will probably bust their collective gut laughing at it. Finally, I am amused by the notion that, if only for appearances sake, Kathie Lee Gifford will one day find herself watching it as well. My recommendation to her in this regard? Forgo a mere glass of wine and bring the entire box along instead—you are probably going to need it.
Goodnight Mommy ****
Co-filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have conjured an intelligently staged and executed creepfest that takes one of the most universally compelling of notions—the unbreakable bond that exists between a mother and her children—and approaches it in such a formally and narratively bleak manner that it makes the works of fellow countryman Michael Haneke seeming almost benign by comparison.
The Gunman **
The action scenes are executed by director Pierre Morel with none of the grace and style that he brought to the big set-pieces in such previous efforts as "District B13" and "Taken." Unlike those beautifully orchestrated ballets of brutality, the fights here have the lets-get-this-done feel of a television series that has fallen a day or two behind in its shooting schedule.
The Harvest ***1/2
[John] McNaughton returns to both the big screen and the genre where he first made his bones with "The Harvest," a smart and strong genre work that makes up for a relative lack of gore and viscera with plenty of tension and suspense and a number of impressive performances.
The original "Hot Tub Time Machine" was a dumb movie, of course, but it at least tried to approach its dumbness in a smart way. Here, despite the return of director Steve Pink and screenwriter Josh Heald (who co-wrote the original and who goes solo here), this installment is a dumb movie that seems hell-bent on becoming dumber and cruder with each successive scene.
This is a grim and brutal drama of such an overwhelmingly unpleasant nature throughout that if the Harvey Keitel character from "Bad Lieutenant" had somehow lived to see it, even he might have been taken aback by much of the extremely lurid and often distasteful material on display.
Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet ***1/2
A smart, vibrant and ultimately entertaining film that also serves as a reminder that animated feature films can do so much more than serve as commercials for toy lines and fast-food meal tie-ins.
[Matthew] Vaughn—whose previous credits include "Kick-Ass," another savagely brutal adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book—floods the screen with flying limbs and spurting blood throughout, and, while it is all done in a deliberately cartoonish and nihilistic manner, it is still way too much of a not-that-great thing.
"The Lazarus Effect" is such a limp excuse for a horror movie that it cannot even get a rise out of a couple of kids out past their bedtime on a school night. The entire thing is shot in such darkness that the mere act of looking at it becomes a chore that is hardly worth the effort.
A LEGO Brickumentary **1/2
One might hope that "A LEGO Brickumentary" [will] explore the subject at hand with a similarly off-kilter approach but that is not the case with what is essentially a 90-minute infomercial for a product that hardly needs to sell itself anymore at this point.
"Lila & Eve" is not supposed to be funny—indeed, the central topic is about as unfunny as one could possibly imagine—but nevertheless inspires huge laughs, albeit of the unintentional kind, thanks an idiotic screenplay and a supposedly "shocking" plot twist that even the most inattentive viewers should be able to figure out within the first fifteen minutes or so, tops.
The Loft *
A shabby bore that promises viewers any number of kinky thrills and then proceeds to deflate those expectations. [...] It's like a combination of "The Apartment," minus the caustic wit and interesting characters, "Reservoir Dogs" sans the powerful sexual tension and a below-average episode of "Law & Order SVU." Actually, that description makes it sound far more interesting than it actually is.
Anyone looking for a penetrating and incisive examination of the Pacquiao phenomenon will have to keep searching, because "Manny" is not it. Funny how a film about a man who became famous for not pulling any punches could be accused of doing just that.
An occasionally strange, occasionally brutal and occasionally lovely work that goes up on the shelf with "The Ocean of Helena Lee" and "Girlhood" as one of the more impressive coming-of-age tales of recent times.
One of those rare birds that is so off-putting in so many ways that all I could do for the most part was wonder how so many presumably intelligent people could be persuaded to sign on to produce and appear in something that could not have possibly seemed like anything other than a total mess from its earliest stages.
The New Girlfriend ****
One of its greatest pleasures is seeing how filmmaker Francois Ozon manages to find just the right note for such challenging material. He transforms what might have been a tonal nightmare in other hands into a wildly entertaining work, one that manages to be simultaneously funny, touching, slightly unnerving and undeniably sexy to behold, regardless of where your predilections may lie.
No Escape 1/2*
The screenplay is bad boilerplate with the occasional lapse into outright buffoonery […], the characters we are meant to be rooting for are bores and the action is never especially exciting—but the way in which it treats its ostensibly serious subject in such a flip and exploitative manner is far more offensive than anything [John Erick and Drew Dowdle] have offered up before.
The two main characters in "The Ocean of Helena Lee" live together in the Venice Beach area of California, and each represents one of those two particular perspectives. Watching them navigate through their lives makes for one of the more unique, evocative and deeply felt coming-of-age films to come along in quite some time.
"Pixels" does have a couple of laughs scattered here and there, and the film as a whole is certainly better than such recent Sandler disasters as "That's My Boy," "Blended" and the truly inexplicable "The Cobbler," but when one considers how good this material might have been if placed in the right hands, to see it squandered this way makes it almost more painful to view than the typical Sandler stinker.
I admit that I knew pretty much everything that was going to happen going in thanks to my familiarity with the source material, Robert Heinlein's celebrated 1959 short story "—All You Zombies—," and still found myself knocked out by its startlingly effective translation from the page to the screen.
Return to Sender 1/2*
"Return to Sender" is dreck of the lowest kind—a sleazy exploitation film that is all the worse because it has somehow convinced itself that it is thoughtful and profound. For anyone interested in a well-told story, its failings at the most basic narrative levels will seem appalling. For anyone who has been a victim of sexual violence, its weirdly dated approach to rape and its aftermath will come across as enraging.
The Salt of the Earth ***1/2
[Wim] Wenders trains his camera on photographer Sebastiao Salgado and the result, though not without flaws, is an invigorating and interesting observation of the man, his work and the entire medium of photography.
I am going to give it two stars because this marks a definite step down in quality from its predecessors that is only partly redeemed by some cheerful silliness. However, those of you who are unabashed fans should probably add a star and those who have never had any use for them should subtract one.
There is something innately appealing about a film like "Survivor," a smaller-scale international thriller that is not trying to blow viewers away with over-the-top pyrotechnics every five minutes. The problem is that while it never lapses into complete cartoonishness, it never does much of anything else either.
The Taking of Tiger Mountain ***1/2
While the end result may be admittedly more uneven in spots than [Tsui Hark's] best-known works, this lavish period piece contains enough thrills, spills and moments of cinematic grace that not only manage to push it through the rough spots but allow it to put most American action films of recent vintage to shame.
The latest film to present viewers with a look at the final hours of mankind is an Australian import titled, appropriately enough, "These Final Hours" and while it does have a few things of interest going for it, this low-budget effort ends up arriving at its necessarily predictable conclusion in too many unnecessarily predictable ways.
"The Transporter Refueled" is an unnecessary bore from start to finish, one that even the most devoted Luc Besson fanatics (and as someone who named "Lucy" as one of the 10 best films of 2014, I admit to falling into that category) will find difficult to defend.
White Rabbit **1/2
One of the bleaker films that you will see anytime soon and while it may not be entirely successful as a whole, it contains enough moments of real power to make you wish that it worked better than it actually does.
"Wild Canaries" is the latest film to attempt to emulate the charm of [“The Thin Man”], with a hefty shmear of Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery" added for good measure, but the difference here is that since this one lacks the aforementioned chemistry, sparkling dialogue, stylish direction and talented terriers, all that viewers have left to hold on to is the plot and unfortunately, that isn't much to speak of either.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...
A look at the entire "Alien" franchise, and a reappraisal of its unloved installments.
A tribute to the late Powers Boothe.