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Column Fri Jan 29 2010

Edge of Darkness, When in Rome and The Chaser

Hey everyone. Before I dive into this week's column, I wanted to alert to the single greatest event in film history, and it's happening the Friday before Valentine's Day right here in Chicago.

A lot has been written (some of it by me) about both the film The Room and its creator Tommy Wiseau in both the mainstream and underground press. The speculation has run rampant about both the man and his notorious work. Last year at Comic-Con, I came this close to securing an interview with Wiseau, but we just couldn't make our schedules sync up. But I did talk to him on the phone for a bit, and was like I'd put my ear up to the mouth of God.

Wiseau remains a mystery despite being fairly accessible to reporters, fans, and anybody else interested in talking to him. But good luck getting a straight answer out of the guy about his life, his movie, his hair, or his future projects. I realize that the prospect of conducting a Q&A with Tommy Wiseau is almost more than my brain can handle, but that's exactly what's going to happen at the legendary Music Box Theatre on Southport. That's right, you're going to have a shot to ask Wiseau the questions you've been waiting years to ask.

Here's the deal. There are two showings of The Room with post-screening Wiseau Q&As, both on Friday, February 12. I'll be moderating the Q&A after the early show (8pm); a gentleman from The Onion's AV Club (the event's sponsor) will be handling the late show (11:30pm).

You should buy your tickets early, regardless of what show you come to. Both shows will likely sell out. Here is the link for tickets to either show. Tickets are $15. What a deal! And what a way to begin your Valentine's Day weekend. I think that about covers it. Hope to see you there.

Edge of Darkness

For months, I've been waiting for this film, and for months, I've loathed the title. It seemed so bland and generic. But now that I've seen Mel Gibson's return to leading-man status Edge of Darkness, I embrace the title for everything it stands for. The title still doesn't do this exceptional film justice, because this is a story that dives headfirst into darkness thanks to a tempered, perfectly measured performance by Gibson, who takes everything we know about his potential as an actor and then defies it, and then builds on it, and gives us one of the most complete and focused characters in his arsenal.

His character, Boston Det. Thomas Craven, is not a difficult man to figure out at all. His wife died when their daughter Emma was young, and while the two have drifted apart geographically, their bond is undeniable. On a seemingly spontaneous visit home, Emma seems a bit distracted and more than a little sick. She unexpectedly begins vomiting blood at the dinner table. As he races to get her out the front door and she begins to tell him why she is so ill, a masked gunman stands their waiting just outside the house, calls out "Craven," and shreds Emma with a shotgun blast as she stands directly next to her father. The investigating officers and the media immediately assume that some enemy Craven made on the job is responsible for this horrific act, but Craven isn't convinced. And while most people would simply take the time to mourn the loss of their only child, Craven falls back on his only coping mechanism--his work.

With very little over-the-top violence (okay, maybe there's a little) and a slowly unfolding plot that holds together nicely, Edge of Darkness follows a surprisingly complex and truly interesting path to the truth behind Emma's death. What impressed me so much about Gibson's work here is partly due to the strong writing from William Monahan (The Departed; Body of Lies) and Andrew Bovell (Lantana). Craven does not simply plow through his investigation like a rabid animal mowing down every potential conspirator in his path. He considers each new person and situation, and does what is necessary. Sometimes, a soft touch is required; sometimes, a rocks-off ass kicking is the way to go; and every so often a bullet to the head does the trick. Thomas Craven is not a machine. If anything, he's the exact opposite--an emotional pent-up man with nothing left to lose.

Some might think that the places Craven's investigation take him are a little far fetched, but director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale; both Zorro movies; and the upcoming Green Lantern film) mostly avoids taking things to an absurd place, even with one of my absolute favorite working character actors Danny Huston hamming things up a bit as Emma's boss at a nuclear research facility. I was particularly fond of the character Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), a man who is brought in to solve problems for the government, but that doesn't mean what you think. Winstone plays the role with such confidence and intelligence that one of my only complaints about Edge of Darkness is that he isn't in it more.

The story is smart enough to know that sometimes the best way to handle a potential problem is not to eliminate those threatening to expose you, but instead add more voices to the naysayers so that the message gets watered down and convoluted. It's a fine line between being a whistleblower and a conspiracy theorist apparently. So Gibson's mission becomes not only finding his daughter's killer but making certain people believe him when he starts pointing fingers and explaining why she died. His performance is one of the best of his career, but more than that, I like seeing him play his age (mid-50s) and letting his wrinkles show on his face and his thinning hair become part of this deeply flawed character. Craven's theories on soldiers suffering from PTSD might ruffle a few feathers, but it's pretty amusing nevertheless. And to hear Gibson issue a line about whether a person wants to be nailed to a cross or the one driving in the nails has an extra resonance coming from the director of The Passion of the Christ (the line certainly got an unexpected laugh from the crowd with whom I saw this movie).

I'm not here to judge Mel Gibson as a human being or as a controversial figure. My only job is to judge his performance in Edge of Darkness, and he's as good in this movie as I've ever seen him. And I hope this is the launching-off point for him into the next phase of his acting career. If it is, we're in for a slew of excellent roles from Gibson, and I'm looking forward to whatever he's up to in Jodie Foster's The Beaver later this year. In the mean time, check this one out soon.

When In Rome

I'm really struggling with this review, which is strange because usually with movies I despise, the words come alarmingly easy. But I know why this is so difficult--it's because When In Rome actually hurts to watch. When In Rome is a cute baby deer seconds after it has been run down by a pick-up truck and left for dead. But it's not dead; it's lying there struggling, in immense pain, struggling to take a breath. It's in agony and it needs to be put down, out of its indescribable misery, so that it can go to a special place where it can be something better than it is. Seeing an adorable creature suffering puts me in a great deal of pain, and that's what it was like watching When In Rome...from the director of Daredevil and Ghost Rider. Sigh.

What's worse is that Kristen Bell should know better. She almost can't help but be funny and appealing in every circumstance. Yes somehow, director Mark Steven Johnson actually invents ways to make her a grading, controlling, stupid ninny of a woman who we're told is a curator at New York's Guggenheim Museum, but who I didn't believe for a second could curate a ham-and-cheese sandwich at the corner deli. And I think that clumsy woman who tripped into that Picasso the other day knows more about art than Bell's Beth. But I digress. Beth finds out that her younger sister (Alexis Dziena) has met an Italian man and is getting married right away. Why this rushed-marriage scenario is so important to the story is never explained, as are many other plot points that seem placed here to make the proceedings seem quirky and fun, but actually serve to make me both tired and homicidal.

The Rome wedding forces Beth to take a couple days off work just days before her biggest curating job is about to happen. Anjelica Huston lessens her career credibility by appearing as Beth's one-dimensional bitchy boss. In Rome, Beth meets the ceremony's best man, an adorably clumsy Nick (Josh Duhamel), who thinks Beth is peachy. Turns out that when Nick was younger, he was a well-known college football player who got hit by lightning during a game. Again, this point could have easily been written out of the script and nobody would have missed it, but it keeps getting brought up and making me angry. Beth finds herself attracted to Nick, but after she catches him making out with another woman during the reception, she jumps into a "magic fountain" and starts pulling out coins that men threw in for luck in love. She pulls out five coins, which for some reason, triggers the gods of lame romantic comedies to make five strangers fall in love with Beth. Listen to this line up of actors playing the four of the five schlubs, none of whom are funny in this movie: Danny Devito, Jon Heder, Will Arnett, and Dax Shepard. The identity of the fifth guy to throw himself at Beth is kept a secret from us, but she presumes it to be Nick because she's so unlovable she can't imagine a man loving her for her. Come to think of it, I can't either.

All of the men follow her from Rome to New York City and vie for her attention and affection. Heder's magician character is just weird enough to elicit a laugh or two, and Shepard's self-obsessed male model character made me crack up a few times. But beyond that, this movie left me stone faced and hard hearted. Even the beauty and charm of Kristen Bell could not come even a little bit close to saving any part of this movie. And don't even get me started on the aggressively uncomfortable-to-watch closing-credit dance sequence. Did someone think this was a good idea? I'd almost recommend the movie just so you can watch a handful of actors who have been good in other things look so horribly embarrassed during this ending dance number.

A warning to men in particular who get dragged to When In Rome: if your date enjoys this movie, you may want to raise your standards, because otherwise you are fucking doomed. Hell, if your grandmother likes it, you may want to consider adoption for yourself or at least witness protection. And if you think you might at least enjoy the Roman scenery as you attempt to tune out the foolishness, guess again, Bubbles. The film spends about 30 seconds showing a few touristy attractions of Rome, because apparently the choice comedy just needs to be gotten to right away. Hey people, I see these so you don't have to. So don't! No matter what! As far as I'm concerned, When In Rome is a race to see what needs to be put out of its misery first: the film or viewer. Need proof? Okay, how about this? Don Johnson (or maybe it's someone who ate Don Johnson) is on hand as Beth's father. I rest my miserable case.

The Chaser

Why this film isn't getting a slightly larger release is one of the true mysteries and crimes against film lovers. That being said, Chicagoans do have a chance to see one of the best crime thrillers, police dramas, and psychological profiles of some truly nasty individuals all wrapped up in a fantastic little package called The Chaser, playing at Facets Multimedia for one week beginning today. The movie also marks the debut of a skilled new director, Hong-jin Na, onto the South Korean filmmaking landscape--a place where boundaries and genres go to die and all forms of sentimentality are devoured and crapped out without mercy.

The film starts out low key (relatively speaking for a South Korean work) as we meet Joong-ho, a former detective who has turned his knowledge of the underground into a successful pimp gig. His business is threatened when two of his girls go missing in a short time span. Shorthanded, Joong-ho must send Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie), a girl who has called in sick with a severe fever, to a client late one night. When she too goes missing, Joong-ho's detective instincts kick in and he goes searching for the woman who he finds out later has a young daughter to take care of. The reason South Korean films in general (and this film in particular) work so well is that they defy traditional storytelling methods to tell their unconventional tales.

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that it turns out the client Mi-Jin goes to visit that night is the same guy the two missing girls went to visit when they vanished. And it doesn't take long for Joong-ho to find and accuse Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) of stealing his girls and selling them, something he fervently denies, because, in fact, he is a serial killer and the first two girls are already dead, with Mi-jin about ready to join them. In most American films--or any film from the Western world--this story would have been a mystery about the process of the police and/or Joong-ho tracking down and identifying this killer. But in The Chaser, the guy is caught early on, at which point the film turns into a social commentary about the cover-your-ass mentality of the police and judicial system that delays the finding of Mi-jin but might also result in the release of this sociopath for lack of evidence. The movie is not only meant to thrill and shock you but also make you angry, frustrated, and slightly depressed at the state of the world.

From a country whose film industry is one of the most reliable and exciting (at least from the point of view of this Westerner), The Chaser is one of the best race-against-the-clock movies I've seen in ages, from any nation. And it features an ending I simply did not anticipate, nor did I want to. The film succeeds by making your blood boil, your pulse race, and your heart break at the state of humanity. Despite its limited release in stateside theaters (I believe the film is also currently playing on the Sundance Channel), The Chaser is a brilliantly conceived and acted masterpiece for the ages. Go see it at Facets immediately.

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Sonny Crockett / January 29, 2010 10:28 AM

You miserable little cretin. When you have the success Don Johnson has had over the years, then speak.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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