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Column Fri Jun 12 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Away We Go, Imagine That, The Force Among Us, Enlighten Up!, Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight, Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect and Visioneers

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

The not-so-big secret about the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (which was the actual title) was that the heist itself was just an excuse to get to know some really interesting and very human characters on both sides of the crime equation. Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw would have been nearly as interesting playing two people checking out library books as they were as a transit cop and subway hostage taker, respectively. Watching that film today, the stakes seem ludicrously low and New York is a very different place.

The 2009 edition of 1 2 3 is a beast of a different nature, but director Tony Scott is wise enough to at least leave the fundamentals the same as he navigates Brian Helgeland's far more dense screenplay. The focus is still on characters, even if the characters aren't nearly as compelling as they were 35 years ago. Much has been updated to this story of group of angry New Yorkers who hijack a subway car filled with passengers and demand a massive sum of money in one hour before they start killing hostages, and for the most part I didn't mind the changes. The head of the criminals, Ryder (played by John Travolta), has motivations behind his actions that seem solid. The film also acknowledges the role that modern telecommunications would play in such an incident — yes, in some cities, you can get a wireless signal in the subway. Above ground is an entirely different story...

Director Scott's frequent collaborator Denzel Washington is the best thing in the film as Walter Garber, which is good since he pulls us through his journey as the seemingly hapless dispatcher who becomes Ryder's main point of contact. Washington is playing older and a bit more skittish than he usually does, and it suits the character beautifully as a man whose recent history in the New York Transit Authority is under major scrutiny. As much as his superiors would love to pull him off the line with this dangerous criminal, Ryder senses a kindred spirit he can manipulate when he needs to. Also on hand in the film is John Turturro as a hostage negotiator who is feeding Walter lines to tell Ryder and prepping him for each new encounter. Turturro and Washington, two veterans who came up in the Spike Lee school of filmmaking, have a great chemistry and their conversations are the highlights of the film. James Gandolfini plays New York's mayor, who is ridiculously hands-on in this case. And of course we have Luis Guzman as a disgruntled subway engineer who assists Ryder in his evil ways. You can never have too much Guzman in a movie, period.

You may think at this point that I'm ready to hand over my whole-hearted recommendation to The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but not so fast. There's one problem, and it's a doozy: John Travolta is ridiculous in this movie. I don't just mean a little nutzo or eccentric; he's genuinely awful in this role. I'm not sure which is more distracting, his bloated face, his pencil-thin facial hair, the way his voice goes into an upper register whenever he get mad and yells things like "Motherfucker!" You will more than likely laugh all the way through this movie thanks to Travolta's soul-crushing work. He did the same thing in the Thomas Jane Punisher movie, and I hope once and for all no one ever hires him to play an over-the-top villain again. He's so unbelievably unconvincing it boggles the mind. And he goes a long way toward killing any enthusiasm I had for this movie.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, the film becomes less interesting when the action moves aboveground. I guess the novelty of having all of the action set either on a lone railcar or an otherwise unexciting dispatch headquarters was kind of interesting, but once the chase sees daylight, I got bored. Still, Washington does a workman's job to keep certain aspects of this film very interesting. I contend that the actor does some of his best and most intense work with Scott behind the camera, with films like Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Déjà Vu. In the character of Walter, Washington braids bits of confidence, frailty, fear and desperation. In lesser hands, these subtleties would have been lost. But Washington knows how to weave these various traits in and out of each other, creating a three-dimensional character amid a sea of lesser-developed ones. With the exception of one great performance, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is decidedly average. I don't really remember a moment where I felt Walter's life was in danger, nor did I really care about the fate of Ryder or the passengers. The thriller aspects to the film are flatlined, and the chase aspects are standard-issue stuff. There's better out there, folks. Try something a little more adventurous and original on for size.


Away We Go


Sometimes a film just speaks right into your ear with such a perfect tone that its impact permeates your entire mind, body and soul. I've now seen director Sam Mendes' largely under-the-radar latest work Away We Go twice, and both times it made me laugh and feel deeply for the early-30s couple at the heart of this beautiful and modest work from a man who has spent a great deal of his film career dissecting (perhaps "eviscerating" is the better word) the suburban lifestyle in works such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road. The film feels almost too personal thanks entirely to an almost unfairly perfect script from novelist Dave Eggers (who also wrote the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are adaptation with Spike Jonze) and wife Vendela Vida. As much as I give full credit to the writers, the warmth and the endearment comes from Mendes' closeness to the material. I came away from this film believing that he cared more about these characters than he has from those in his other works, and shockingly enough, so did I.

And while I'm sure that there have been thousands of films over the years featuring couples in their 30s having kids, Away We Go feels like the definitive cinematic statement on a generation that has decided not to follow in their parents' or grandparents' footsteps and have children immediately after high school or college (such as the couple in Revolutionary Road) for the plain and simple reason that they don't believe they've figured their shit out enough to start a family. A lot of people have already pointed to the scene in the film where Verona (the absolutely perfect Maya Rudolph, basically reintroducing herself to the world as a major acting force) asks her longtime companion Burt ("The Office's" John Krasinski, utterly disguised behind giant glasses and a shaggy beard) if they are "fuck-ups" (or "screw-ups" in the trailer). That's the essence and the jumping-off point of the film and this couple's journey to discover the North American dream. In the end, Away We Go is not a movie about two unmarried people (Verona doesn't see the point in marriage) expecting a child; it's a film about looking for a home.

Burt and Verona live in a shitty little trailer in some desolate corner of Colorado (although I'm not sure the location is ever specifically mentioned) to be close to Burt's flaky parents (Catherine O'Hara and Jeff Daniels), who announce over dinner one night that they are going to realize their longtime ambition to move to Belgium — one month before the baby is due (Verona is six months pregnant at this point). Shocked by Burt's parents' complete selfishness in their time of need, the couple decides they officially have no ties to this hole of an existence and set off on a quick tour of cities in the U.S. (and one in Canada) where they have friends or acquaintances that they might be able to lean on for help as they raise their first child. They don't know exactly what they're looking for, but we get a sense that they (and we) will know it when we get there. Along their journey, we gain little bits of insight into their dynamic and discover some truly remarkable things about Burt and Verona — they seem to get better as an unmarried unit the tougher and scarier things get in their world; instead of long, drawn-out conversations about life, they have short, to-the-point discussions that incorporate a shorthand that every couple develops over time; and they take away examples of what to do (more often, what not to do) from every encounter they have with other parents.

I'm not going to go through the film city by city, but we do get to meet some truly remarkable and terrifying people along the way. The households of both Alison Janney (playing an old work friend of Verona's) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (as a childhood friend of Burt's) are both borderline cliché, but Mendes keeps the proceedings reeled in just enough to make them believable enough to be scarily accurate. Both sequences are a scream, and they leave our young heroes more confused than when they arrived. I do want to talk a bit about the segment set in Montreal, where they visit a couple (Chris Messina and Melanie Lynskey) they knew in college, who have one of the most well-adjusted melting pots of adopted children you will ever see on screen. They watch The Sound of Music as a group, but turn the film off before the Nazis enter the picture. They sound overprotective, but it's nobler than that. And just as Burt and Verona think they've found their home, the true nature of this relationship reveals itself. It's a move that is so subtle, you almost miss it; but once you realize what's going on, it stings.

An unplanned trip to Miami to see Burt's brother (Paul Schneider) interrupts Montreal, and the news in Florida isn't much better. His wife has left him and his daughter unexpectedly, and he's emotionally traumatized, more for his daughter than for himself. The segment provides an unexpected level of clarity for both us and Burt and Verona, and sets up a final decision that seems both inevitable and unexpected. During the course of Away We Go, we don't just get to know this couple; we feel like we've taken the first step to becoming their friends. I think that's accurate, since we leave them wanting the best for them and their unborn child. Above all, we want them to be great parents. We've watched them struggle and prevail (sort of), and we'd like to see them again, maybe five years down the road. Will they become their parents or their obnoxious friends? I hope not, but I'd sure like to find out. There's a sequence toward the end of the film involving Burt and Verona lying down on a trampoline talking about all of the things they promise to do for each other and their child. If you can leave that sequence without your emotions being beautifully shattered, then you might be dead. And it's because of that scene that Away We Go went from being a very good movie to a great movie, damn near perfect in my estimation, and certain the finest work Mendes has ever produced. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema and other locations.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Away We Go director Sam Mendes.


Imagine That


The good news is: Eddie Murphy has made far worse films than Imagine That. There are no fat suits to be found and no Murphy playing a stereotypical old Asian man or him doing anything even remotely offensive outside of yelling at the occasional child. The bad news is: Eddie Murphy is still making the most consistently crappy films aimed at "family" audiences that the world has ever seen. I've given up trying to understand how Murphy lost his spine, or why I still get excited when he does something unexpected (like Dreamgirls or Bowfinger). I got a review copy the other day of Eddie Murphy: Delirious, and my heart sank a little. What happened to that guy, those jokes, that edge, and the bold fashion statement that only red vinyl can make? But enough living in the past; let's give the crappy movies of today a chance!

Imagine That is about a crappy divorced dad named Evan (Murphy), whose young daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi) appears to retreat into an imaginary world filled with kings, queens and princesses as a result of her parents' breakup. She has latched onto her blanket, which she drapes over her head to see and talk to this cast of make-believe friends, and it's beginning to take a toll on her school behavior and interactions with other children. Olivia is staying with her father for a few months (a situation that is never fully explained), although her mother (Nicole Ari Parker) is clearly in the picture, but he's a busy financial executive in line to take over his branch when his boss steps down. Not needing the distraction of his daughter at this time, Evan basically ignores her except when she disrupts his work. However, one day he discovers that his daughter's imaginary friends somehow are able to analyze the financial stability of the companies he's doing research on for his clients and tell Olivia whether they are worth buying into or selling off. Their predictions are 100 percent correct, but in order to get the information from them, Evan must enter their world with his daughter and believe in their existence. Thankfully, director Karey Kirkpatrick (director of the vastly superior animated work Open Season) doesn't show us these invisible characters or their kingdom. We're not supposed to believe they exist, even though they are producing some fantastic results. He relies on Murphy and Shahidi's acting to convince us these people and places exist, and for the most part they do a pretty solid job getting excited enough about spending time together that the film's far-fetched plot doesn't annoy us.

Adding to some of the nice touches the film has to offer is Thomas Hayden Church as Whitefeather, another executive at Murphy's company vying for the same job he is. Whitefeather, as you might have guessed, is Native American, and he uses some of the teachings of his people to help him make his financial decisions. Kids are not going to get the jokes by and about Whitefeather, but he may be the only reason adults laugh during this movie. He's ridiculous, and without giving anything away, the character is playing a role of sorts so you don't have to feel bad about laughing at an Indian. Enjoy his scenes while you can, because the rest of the movie isn't nearly as fun.

Forgetting, if you can, that the premise of Imagine That is a man using his daughter to get ahead in business so he can ultimately spend less time with her, even if you're able to see this as a movie about a father finding the value in his daughter's company, it's still kind of awful. Yes, there's a big scene in which Murphy must publically embarrass himself in front of a large crowd to regain his kid's trust (it's a Hollywood comedy — of course there's a scene like that). The simple fact is that every single move this film makes is projected several scenes in advance, with the exception of some of the outrageous stuff that comes out of Whitefeather's mouth, and eventually even that character succumbs to predictability. And don't even get me going on the Martin Sheen cameo as the head of Murphy's company who must ultimately make the decision about which man to hire for the open job. I know Sheen isn't easily humiliated (look who his kids are for Christ's sake), but what the hell, man?

For me, the sure-fire test as to whether a movie aimed at youngsters is any good is whether the kids the audience I saw it with seemed interested in what was going on. The screening I went to was a frickin' zoo, with kids running around, taking, and doing pretty much anything but watch this miserable movie. Here's a hint: kids don't care about finance unless it involves their allowance or the tooth fairy. If you're foolish enough to get caught dead watch Imagine That, prepare to be in a constant state of agony for 80-some minutes. Enjoy!


The Force Among Us


If you've got a few thousand dollars and the inclination, you might still be able to buy a seat or table to watch Iron Man director and fellow Chicagoan John Favreau interview Star Wars creator George Lucas at the Four Seasons Hotel on Saturday, June 13, as part of a fund-raising event for the Gene Siskel Film Center. But since I'm guessing that most of you won't be able to make it to that event for whatever reason, please allow me to offer an alternative way to get your Star Wars groove on the day before this landmark gala. On Friday, June 12 at 8pm, the Siskel Film Center is showing the weirdly compelling and curious 2007 documentary The Force Among Us from directors Cristian and Cortney Macht (both of whom will be at the Film Center for a post-screening audience discussion). The film doesn't so much attempt to dive into the actual Star Wars universe or the mythology that informed it. Instead, this film is about the fandom of collectors and costumed warriors who have turned the characters and lessons of the franchise into a second life (I think for many this goes beyond being a simple hobby).

The filmmakers do interview sociology professors and others who attempt to draw parallels between the world of Star Wars and various religions, but those aren't the most interesting parts of the film. I want to see more about the folks who spend months building and perfecting their own costumes; I want to hear more stories about the early years of Star Wars fandom where Lucas' lawyers were cracking down on unlicensed usage of the films' images; I want understand the rules about becoming a member of the 501st Legion of stormtroopers; and I want to follow the organized tour groups that made the pilgrimage to Tunisia (which stood in for Tatooine in five films) and Norway (whose lovely snow-covered mountains were used in The Empire Strikes Back's opening Hoth sequences.

What I also found interesting and quite eye opening were the many interviews with fans of all ages about who their favorite characters are and which film is their favorite. Not surprisingly, the age of the interviewee makes a huge difference in how they answered, and it gave me a slightly broader perspective on Episodes 1-3, and who exactly their target audience really was. A little of this material goes a long way, especially when the filmmakers are clearly limited by not being able to show clips from the films and they interview absolutely no one connected to the movies.

But The Force Among Us isn't really about celebrities or analyzing the movies in detail; its real purpose seems to be debunking the myth that there is a fanboy "type." I have to be honest: I'm not 100 percent sure the film actually succeeding in its mission, but it is clear after watching this that Star Wars has moved different ages in different ways over the years. I found it amusing how many of the people interviewed in the movie are convinced that Lucas is somehow aware of and responding to some aspect of what they are doing. The Machts probably could have trimmed some of the longer and less interesting interviews down significantly, but how often are we going to get to hear these people truly speak their peace? The film is as much for die-hard fans as it is about them, and so, to you (you know who you are), this is a must-see. The rest of you would probably have more fun the following night after you've spent your life savings getting into the event.


Enlighten Up!


When I got the screener for the documentary from director and yoga enthusiast Kate Churchill, I'll admit I didn't think I'd be interested in a movie about yoga. Granted, I don't know that much about the practice as either an exercise routine or a spiritual pursuit, so on that level I suppose I was curious. But then I took a look at the cover of the press notes: there was an unshaved dude standing in front of the title of the film with the subtitle "A Skeptic's Journey into the World of Yoga." Ah, now we're talking. So in went the DVD into the player. What Churchill wisely does is, rather than focus on her own path toward discovering and pursuing the practice of yoga, she finds what she refers to as a "guinea pig," someone she can immerse in the world of yoga and see where it takes him. She selects a 29-year-old journalist named Nick Rosen, who has a great curiosity about all things unknown to him but also, as the subtitle suggests, a healthy skepticism about those who attach deeper meaning to what he sees as a painful workout routine.

During the course of following Nick for six months, we see him "audition" various trainers and classes, some fairly laid back, others extremely intense and downright painful. Since the business of yoga is so closely tied to spirituality and enlightenment, Rosen also investigates a variety of schools of thought on this $5.7 billion worldwide enterprise. What might frustrate some viewers (although I found it an endless source of fascination) is that Rosen's skepticism is almost too much for Churchill to handle. During the course of the filmmaking, the filmmaker and her subject argue, stop speaking to each other, and ultimately their professional relationship is on the verge of utter collapse. Churchill could have probably edited the severity of their interactions out if she'd wanted to, but she's a smart enough director to know that yoga's many contradictions (hell, you can't find two people who agree on how many years yoga has even been in existence — some say thousands of years, some say decades) might be enough to drive as many people away from it as might bring into the fold.

Still, Rosen follows his curiosity around the world, including northern India, where he meets some of the most well known yoga gurus, as well as a few crackpots that try his patience to the point where he begins to reject yoga's spirituality completely. This doesn't bode well for Churchill's original plan for the film, which was to follow her subject until he reached a certain transformative place as a result of a daily yoga practice. Oops! I love the idea that in its own way Enlighten Up! succeeds in its mission. Rosen is enlightened, and his determination is that yoga is a good workout and nothing else — not exactly what the director had in mind, but the sentiment, much like the film, is honest. The movie is a spirited journey through spirituality, but it also does a terrific job of bullshit detection (wait until you get a gander of Laughing Yoga). I really dug Enlighten Up!, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight


If ever there was a creative and cultural icon worthy of a film made about their life and accomplishments, it is New York's Milton Glaser. This film (which takes its title from the design lynchpins of Form and Light) is nothing short of the ultimate love letter to a man who loves his city and his planet so much that he devoted his life to deconstructing it and using its pieces in his art. If all he'd ever done was to design the "I [Heart] NY" logo (from which he hasn't made a dime to this day), he would have secured his place in history. When was the last time a logo brought an entire city back to life? And the backstory about the creation of those timeless statement is as interesting as pretty much this guy's entire life.

Tracing Glaser's life back to childhood, we see how he grew up in a time when the nation, art, music and living all were in a state of flux. His Bob Dylan profile with psychedelic hair is the stuff of poster art legend; he co-created New York magazine, which practically invented middle-class, reader-oriented writing; and his passion of eating in small, neighborhood restaurants turned into the Underground Gourmet publication, which made it OK for fine diners to seek out authentic ethnic food in the neighborhoods where that ethnicity actually lives. He has designed restaurants, and logos and layouts for the entire Grand Union supermarket chain. And what makes Glaser all the more remarkable is how articulate and ready to share his way of thinking and working he is. There's a story behind every legendary work, and Glaser keeps no secrets about his inspirations and execution. His students have gone on to do equally memorable work, and are happy to tell director Wendy Keys all about it.

If Glaser acted like a stuck-up celebrity who wouldn't waste his time on anyone not willing to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars just for a consult, the would still be interesting. But when you hear the founders of Brooklyn Brewery microbrew beer talk about how they simply called Glaser's office every day until someone finally put him on the phone, you understand that he is interested in every type of work, and has been upping his pro bono assignments quite a bit over the years. I did find it a bit odd that we get almost an hour into the movie before we even find out Glaser is married; considering the movie is less than 75 minutes long, that's saying something. But that's nitpicking on my part. The film does exactly what the title says it will: it informs and delights. Any designer worth his or her salt should have their ticket already in hand for this excellent film, and you should feel a great shame as a creative person if you miss this movie, which plays for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.


Rem Koolhaas: A Kind of Architect


Continuing its month-long "Design for Living" series, the Gene Siskel Film Center also is playing for the next week this fascinating documentary about Danish architect Rem Koolhaas, a one-time filmmaker and writer whose theories on building and structures have changed over the years, while setting the tone for architectural around the world. As interesting as it is to watch him evolve as an architect, it's equally intriguing to watch him draw from other architects he admires, like Frank Lloyd Wright. Still, the real power of the film is examining his designs, such as the striking Beverly Hills Prada flagship store, the Seattle Central Library, or the Dutch Embassy in Berlin. The film, co-directed by Markus Heidingsfelser and Min Tesch, takes a more distant approach to its subject but still manages to have fun with his distant image with some interesting visual treatments and animation incorporating his designs and images. Even more bizarre (but completely in synch with the tone of the film) are fellow architects not just talking about Koolhaas' work but criticizing it. I left A Kind of Architect thinking there was still so much more to learn about this withdrawn and private man who makes a living building very public spaces. The film is definitely worth checking out if you're an architecture buff, but it may leave you feeling even more distant from the subject than you were before watching it.


Visioneers


These kind of indie comedies so rarely work — and this one has a few moments that definitely don't — but thanks to some absolutely killer performances, this first-time feature from director Jared Drake establishes a tonally awkward and bizarre premise and just rides it home to what turns out to be a pretty great, smart dark comedy. For those of you who have only just discovered Zach Galifianakis through his work as the demented brother-in-law-to-be in The Hangover, his character in Visioneers is quite different. In the slightly-in-the-future world of this movie, Zach plays George Washington Winsterhammerman (shockingly enough, this schlub of a man is related to the father of our country) a middle manager for the Jeffers Corporation, which apparently owns a piece (or all) of every business in the world. Their very telling corporate logo is a blissfully extended middle finger, and all of its employees greet each other with the mandatory "Jeffers welcome."

Much like the world of 1984, employees are encouraged to work without thinking or much reward, and everything in their world is designed to placate and do all the thinking for them. George sees an ad for fried chicken while on the ride home, and sure enough he brings home a big old mess of chicken for dinner. George's co-workers are drones like him, who dream of moving up from their Level 3 status to Level 4 or maybe even Level 5 management. George's only moments of pleasure on any given day are getting phone calls from a woman named Charisma. Their calls make him actually crack a smile, which is more than he does when he's with his easily distracted wife (the consistently awesome and adorable Judy Greer).

The problem that plagues this version of our world is death — more specifically employees of Jeffers spontaneously exploding, a problem that has become a real epidemic and is making everyone just a little paranoid. Symptoms of impending explosions are dreaming at night and perhaps acting just a little too human. Galifianakis plays his role with a perfect droll, largely expressionless affect, but as he slowly emerges from his emotionless state, we see the cracks in his facade. It's a beautifully understated performance that is as moving in this film as he was disturbing in The Hangover.

There are moments in Visioneers that are just too outrageous and clever for their own good. Some of the fake Jeffers commercials or newscasts do not ring true. But when the film sticks to the personal interactions between people, it works extremely well. Part 1984-part Brazil, Visioneers has slightly less lofty goals at heart, but that doesn't stop it from being fairly fascinating stuff every so often. I hope director Drake doesn't lose his edge; there's a bit of Mike Judge in his worldview (and a bit of Office Space in this film), and that's an admirable achievement. The film is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Thursday, June 18 at 8pm, and Friday, June 26 at 6pm.

 
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