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Column Fri Sep 04 2009

Extract, World's Greatest Dad, Still Walking, My One and Only and Treeless Mountain

Extract

The workplace is undoubtedly a great environment to base a whole lot of comedy, and the first time writer-director Mike Judge wrote a film about how much genuine inanity was borne in the world of white-collar business, he called it Office Space, and it was good. Judge had already established his place as a scary observer of human behavior with Beavis & Butt-Head (both the TV show and the feature film), but Office Space was so right on the money that a generation of middle managers and cubicle dwellers turned the film into their source for the finest quotes the world had to offer at the time. Judge hasn't exactly transplanted the Office Space template and moved it into a factory assembly line setting for his latest film Extract, but the results are just as funny, even if some of the best humor takes place outside of the work environment.

The first thing you notice about Extract is that the employees actually seem to like their boss, Joel (played by Jason Bateman), who built this small, privately owned factory that makes a special brand of extracts with flavor that lasts longer. Joel has done well for himself, but he's frustrated because his wife (Kristen Wiig) hasn't slept with him in weeks. After a serious industrial accident involving an employee (Clifton Collins, Jr.) losing a testicle, a temp shows up to work on the line in the form of Mila Kunis' Cindy, a seemingly sweet, beautiful woman who seems genuinely interested in Joel's line of work. After some prompting from his best friend Dean (the bearded Ben Affleck, as a sort of stoner philosopher), Joel realizes that the only way he could even dream of cheating on his wife with Cindy (he kind of makes that leap with consulting Cindy first, but let's not get lost in the details) is if his wife cheated on him first. One male prostitute (the hilarious Dustin Milligan) later, Joel is ready to make a play for Cindy, but nothing in this movie is that easy. In fact, that's part of the problem I had with Extract.


The jokes are undeniably there, and they are many. The problem is, there's too much story for a film like this. General Mills might want to buy the Joel's company once a potential lawsuit from the ball-less wonder goes away. The always-reliable J.K. Simmons is on hand as Joel's right-hand man; he starts out as a strong supporting player, but by the end becomes a glorified messenger boy. The subplot about the lawsuit is tedious, and a cameo by Gene Simmons as the injured man's shark lawyer does not work. I was especially disappointed in Kunis' storyline as a drifter/con artist who targets a couple men in this story and essentially vanishes from the plot for huge chunks of the movie.

That said, I'm happy to report that what does work far outweighs what does not. Milligan's man-whore role is the best thing in the movie. His dumbness reaches levels rarely achieved on screen or television. He's magnificent. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention again how great Affleck is. He's not the star of the show, but he comes in and out in a few keys scenes and knocks the entire production up a notch. The film misses him when he's not there. Bateman is good here as the quintessential straight man at the center of the universe of insanity and stupidity. And the funniest thing is, the further the comedy gets from the main storyline, the more I like it. Take for example, the handful of scenes between Bateman and his clueless neighbor, played by the brilliant David Koechner. These sequences could have easily been cut and you never would have missed them from the plot. But they also happen to be among the funniest moments in the entire film, because they are so grounded in reality that to remove them would have been to remove the very heart of Mike Judge's strength. Judge gives voice to the people and events that we find so frustrating that we don't have words for them... but he does. It could be a constantly malfunctioning fax machine or, in case of Koechner, a neighbor who will not take No for an answer, even after you tell him "No."

I'm also ridiculously pleased to see one of Judge's works get this much of a pre-release buildup, courtesy of Miramax. After the abortion-like release of Idiocracy by Fox, or the unceremonious death of the still-strong "King of the Hill," also by Fox, I'm happy every time I see a commercial or a trailer for Extract, a film worthy of all the buzz. The film is sick, twisted and drug-fueled enough for all the freaks who took to Office Space, but it still offers an inherent sweetness that is crucial in a film where many of the characters could be wholly unlikeable in the wrong hands. Fortunately, Mike Judge has the right hands to both write and direct something that seems unsophisticated on the surface, but strikes a surprisingly solid balance. Most importantly, you will laugh... hard and often.


World's Greatest Dad


Bobcat Goldthwait's career as a filmmaker is as impressive as it is baffling. Putting aside directing work he's done for television shows like "The Man Show," "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" and "Chappelle's Show," Goldthwait's three features — Shakes the Clown, Sleeping Dogs Lie (a.k.a. Stay) and now World's Greatest Dad — are all films whose very premises should not work. And yet they do, because Goldthwait injects each one of them with an emotional honesty that is almost difficult to watch let alone admit to enjoying. But with World's Greatest Dad, he's got something he's never had before: a leading actor who sells a premise some might find distasteful so convincingly that we not only tolerate his borderline bad behavior, but we also understand, identify with, and possibly admire his motivations and actions. Now you tell me, how do you feel about seeing a film whose message is that it's OK to really dislike your children? How do you people sleep at night?

Robin Williams abandons nearly all of his familiar zany tricks to give us one of his best performances as a single father of high school student Kyle (the truly deplorable Daryl Sabara), a shameless pervert who cruises the internet for the most disgusting brands of porn and favors autoerotic asphyxiation with his bedroom door unlocked. He has alienated the entire school with his crude behavior, save one seemingly normal friend named Andrew (Evan Martin). Williams' Lance Clayton is a poetry teacher at his son's school, and with his class size dwindling by the semester, Lance fears that his job may be in jeopardy. Even his love life is a strange mess. He's dating a fellow teacher (the lovely Alexie Gilmore), but she's reluctant to actually be seen in public with him, although she's quite sweet to him the few times they are together.

Although I know some other critics have kind of ruined World's Greatest Dad's turning point, I'm not going to do that. What I will say is that the circumstances that Goldthwait's screenplay have set up are kind of genius. With this small film that, in all likelihood, few people will see (I hope I'm wrong), he has made one of the best commentaries on the nature of celebrity, star fuckers, opportunists and, yes, even parenting, that I've ever seen. And if you can get past what it is that gets us to all of these wonderful revelations, I think you're going to love it. Williams plays the emotionally torn Lance about as understated as he's played most anything. Rather than project to the balcony, many of his best lines are delivered under the breath, so only we can hear them. A failed writer, Lance is given the opportunity of his lifetime but at a very steep cost, and his struggle to keep his soul is beautifully realized. This is also the first of Goldthwait's films where I've actually noticed an actual visual style. This is more than just a point-and-shoot attempt at making a movie; there are subtle tones and lighting choice that make the look of the film match the mood of the plot.

And while I truly love this film, my only desire is that Goldthwait had taken it deeper down its messed-up path. The film ends rather abruptly and in a way I don't think similar situations in the real world ever do. The conclusion makes the movie simultaneously more accessible and less genuine. But a blunted ending isn't enough to kill the head of steam World's Greatest Dad builds and delivers upon. Every few years, Williams pulls one of these sleeper performances out of his bag of tricks and reminds us the dude can act when he wants to. Ironically, when he makes movies that please children, he fails; when he makes a movie about a father attempting to please his child, he succeeds. There's a lesson here, folks. I'll be damned if I know what it is, but it's there and it's powerful. That's kind of how I felt about this movie. World's Greatest Dad opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Still Walking


The word "master" seems to get tossed around a lot when it comes to Japanese filmmakers, and I could probably write 2,000 words on why that's not the worst thing, since for as long as the Japanese have been making movies, there have been examples of master filmmakers from that nation. I remember taking a "History of Japanese Cinema" class in college and the professor explaining the connections between the compositions in traditional Japanese painting and those in their films, and a great deal was made clear to me. But that never really explained the care and perception that arose from the plots and characters in those films. I entered the world of Japanese cinema, as many did, through Akira Kurosawa, but Kurosawa should only be a gateway to so many other fantastic, detail-oriented filmmakers. And when you reach and envelop yourselves in the microcosm of Ozu's world, well, then you are an adult, my friend.

One of the current Japanese filmmakers that I'd put on par with the masters is Kore-Eda Kirokazu. If you'd only ever seen is breathtaking After Life, you could consider yourself ready to die. It's telling of what happens between life and death is quite simply one of the greatest films I've ever seen. His latest work, Still Walking, has far more modest intentions than After Life, but it's still an exceptional work of art as Kirokazu dissects the modern Japanese family, who gather every year on the death anniversary of the youngest son, who drowned 15 years ago saving another boy. The emotional intent of the day seems lost on the family, each member of which has his or her own set of problems and concerns to deal with. Still, the family almost can't help drag out some of their best and often-told stories, so that some of the younger or newer members can hear them for the first time over some elaborately prepared meals that will make your mouth water as your mind is simultaneously stimulated by the wonderful conversation.

Nearly the entire film is set at the home of the now-elderly parents — the accepting and forgiving mother, and the largely silent and bitter father, who passes judgment on anyone and anything that passes before his eyes. Both are frustrating in their own way. Their now-grown children are aggravating in their own way, largely because they attend this event out of obligation rather than any kind of respect for their lost brother. Strangely enough, when the character whose life was saved by the dead boy arrives to pay his respect as he does every year, he is largely viewed (behind his back) with contempt by the family for having lived a wasted life after having it saved as a child. The relationships and emotions are tangled and complex and utterly familiar to anyone with extended relations they see regularly. And the film ends with a brilliant shot that sums up everything you will ever need to know about family. There are so many words you could use to describe Still Walking, but calling it "perfect" doesn't quite cover it, despite it being true. The film eases into this family as if you were a member, or perhaps a neighbor with a window open into every happening. Each conversation reveals a little bit more about everyone involved, and that makes it genuine and captivating. Perhaps Kirokazu hates getting it right every single time, but I'll never get tired of it. Still Walking opens today at the Music Box Theatre.


My One and Only


I'm not a knee-jerk Renee Zellweger hater. I'm not starting up any fan clubs on her behalf, but she's given enough solid performances in films like Jerry Maguire, A Price Above Rubies, Chicago, Nurse Betty, Cold Mountain and, yes, even those damned Bridget Jones movies that I think the fact that she makes a scrunchy face sometimes should get a pass. I think she lowers herself when she makes traditional romantic-comedy fare like Leatherheads or New In Town, but thankfully she doesn't make many films like that. I kind of covered this ground in my review of that film, but the bottom line is, Zellweger takes more chances than most actresses in her class (Bullock, Witherspoon, Lopez), and she seems to take more shit than any of them.

So now she's in an indie period piece called My One and Only in which she plays Anne, the mother of two teenage sons (Logan Lerman as the college-age George, and Mark Rendall as the slightly younger and far more gay Robbie) and the recently divorced wife of a womanizing band leader (Kevin Bacon), who decides to take the kinds out of their New York dwelling and travel the country in search of a better husband and hopefully a better life in 1953 America. Zellweger portrays Anne as an aging beauty, whose appearance, manners and general outlook on the relationship between men and women would be more suited for a Southern belle than a mother of two nearly grown sons. It's a frustrating existence for everyone involved, and the film traces their journey across the country and through a series of changes and adjustments — financial and emotional — the family must make in order to survive. Honestly, the film is a great excuse to meet some interesting characters along the way, including ones played by Nick Stahl, Chris Noth, Eric McCormack, Steven Webber, David Koechner and Troy Garity, among others.

My favorite section of the film is set in St. Louis, and I believe it's the longest Anne and her kids spend in any one place. Living with her less attractive more conservative sister (the great Robin Weigert) and her husband (J.C. MacKenzie), Anne meets a business man (Koechner) who woes her in the most gentlemanly way and proposes to her, offering her and her kids a secure future... until that doesn't quite happen. This is a film loaded with frustration, failure and failed dreams, all of which serve to simultaneously bring the family closer and pull it apart. It's actually an interesting study of a dying era and a fearless mother who uses her dated way of life as a means to keep a roof over her family's head. My One and Only combines the feel of old Hollywood, with a type of realism that didn't enter motion pictures until much later.

Now what if I told you that this entire story is actually chronicling the life of a young George Hamilton (that would be the non-gay son, who is listed as a producer on the film), who strove to be a writer but ended up becoming an actor when his mother got the group to California? I hadn't read anything about this movie when I started watching it, so I had no idea this was a slice of Hamilton's life. But I'll admit, when it's revealed at the end that it is about him, I liked the movie just a little bit more knowing that some part of it was true. Director Richard Loncraine (Richard III, The Gathering Storm, My House in Umbria and the upcoming film about Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, That Special Relationship) does a decent job of keeping these multiple coming-of-age stories (I'd include Anne's journey as one of those stories) moving along without feeling overly sentimental or nostalgic. This is a far sadder story than I would have imagined, and that's completely appropriate and a welcome surprise. Things get a little pedestrian and simplified at times, but the heart-felt performances won we over in the end. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.


Treeless Mountain


One the whole, child actors piss me off... except when they astonish me in films like Chop Shop, Ponette, The Fall and now Treeless Mountain, just to name a few examples of young actors pulling off incredible work in the last couple of years. If I could, I would never see another movie with a child actor who has a headshot, because that young actor probably has a very narrow sense of what he or she has to do to make us laugh or cry or care about the undoubtedly narrowly drawn character they are playing. I don't entirely blame young actors — the scripts they are being given are slop and often films featuring children don't really respect the characters or the young actors' abilities to given an emotionally driven performance. And then you find young performers like the ones in the film I've named above. If I'm not mistaken, in every case, the children were non-actors or first-time actors when they made these movies. They don't have a bag of acting tricks. They know only how to be themselves, and the two young girls in Treeless Mountain give two of the most believable and agonizingly real performances you will see this or most other year.

South Korean-born writer-director So Young Kim (who earned an MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago), who made the perfect love story In Between Days three years ago, has crafted a tale of two young Korean sisters (ages 5 and 6), whose father has abandoned them and mother has to give them away to a less-than-responsible aunt in the country while she goes searching for the father after the family is evicted from their small city apartment. The two young actresses are so sweet and natural that we are instantly in their grip emotionally. When they cry, we want to hug them; when someone is mean to them, we want to throttle the bully; and when they find something that comforts them, we are relieved and pleased.

Treeless Mountain isn't about big, overblown, emotional moments. The neglectful aunt isn't so terrible, and we can chalk up most of her bad behavior to not having any kids of her own and just not knowing any better... but not always. Eventually the children land at their grandparents' farm, which we are led to believe by the aunt to be a place of utter misery, which it may very well have been when she grew up there. But the feeble couple who live there now seem kind and attentive to their young charges, and the girls take to the routine of farm living instantly. I have no idea whether the events in Treeless Mountain actually happened to the director or not, but it ultimately doesn't matter. The story feels 100 percent authentic and believable. If it didn't happen to her, it happened to thousands of other people just like her in dozens of countries around the world. The story has a universal quality to it, while still feeling remarkably original.

The film ends with a lot of questions about the future of these two charming child unanswered, but it doesn't feel open ended. Director Kim has taken us to the exact place she needs to, a place where we might not know exactly where these girls end up but we feel fairly confident they are in good hands for the time being. Treeless Mountain is not about plot; it's about life and these wonderfully sketched characters. I was mesmerized by every aspect of this movie, which is screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Sunday, Sept. 6 at 7:45pm, Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 8:15pm; and Thursday, Sept. 10 at 6pm.

 
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