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Column Fri Feb 12 2010

The Wolfman, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Valentine's Day, Life as Lincoln, Saint John of Las Vegas and Still Bill

Hey, everyone. Don't forget, tonight (Friday) is the night that The Room writer-director-producer-actor Tommy Wiseau comes to Chicago to lay down his particular brand of crazy on our unworthy brains. There are two showing of The Room tonight at the Music Box Theatre , the first is at 8pm and the second is at 11:30pm. I'll be handling the Q&A for the first show, which may actually take place before the movie, so be sure to get there early. As of this writing, I hear the early show is on the brink of a selling out, and the late show isn't far behind. Brace yourself! And now, onto this week's releases.

The Wolfman

I've been tearing my hair out about this one for about two hours now trying to decide how I feel about this latest version of The Wolfman, and the fact that I'm still contemplating it and have so many feelings about it makes me think that I genuinely did enjoy the experience of watching this often-flawed exercise in bizarre horror, gothic weirdness, controlled hammy acting, and the evolution of werewolf transformation effects that takes the process to somewhere beyond awesome. Thank you, Rick Baker.

After watching the film this initial time, I have come to realize that Benicio del Toro was destined to play Lawrence Talbot, the man of noble birth who left behind his cursed family's estate when he was young to become a now-famous actor in America in turn-of-the-last-century England. Del Toro is one of the few actors that can so fully embrace the complexities and inner turmoil of Talbot as written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, and were it not for him, the film would have been a colossal failure. Talbot is a man with plenty of control issues long before a werewolf bites him during a vicious attack on a gypsy camp. Since there's no real mystery that Talbot will become a werewolf himself at the next full moon, The Wolfman occasionally runs into the problem of waiting for the next bloody massacre. The gypsy camp attack is so ferocious that it almost sets the bar too high for what comes after it.

Talbot has returned to England because his brother's fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) has written him a letter begging him to come home and figure out what happened to the man, who has turned up dead mere days before, the victim of a sensationally violent attack. Since Talbot has yet to be bitten at this point, we immediately begin to wonder who is the mystery werewolf, but since I've seen a movie before, I was in no way kept guessing. And while there are more than enough scary moments peppered throughout The Wolfman to keep most audiences thoroughly entertained, there's remarkably little drama or tension anywhere in this movie. It's kind of a huge, ongoing problem, but it didn't sink the ship for me entirely.

Director Joe (Jurassic Park III) Johnston goes to dark place in his version of The Wolfman that few versions have dared go, beginning and ending with the truly gory killings. Heads and limbs are flying every which way, and the film's two werewolves commonly rip out people's necks or gut them with a swift rip of the claws, leaving entrails strewn across the ground. It's great fun and a real crowd-pleaser. But then there are other, more unexpected places Johnston takes us. For example, the local authorities investigating the series of murders in town decide that Talbot is simply a maniac who needs intense psychiatric care to cure him of his homicidal impulses. The mad scientist who is his shrink puts him through one torturous round of sadistic "psychotherapy" after another. Del Toro is put through several layers of hell that simply can't be faked, culminating in a medical theater sequence that gets wonderfully nasty.

But The Wolfman combines scenes of attempted high drama and psychological depth with others in which the filmmakers are almost daring us not to laugh. And many of those scenes involve Sir Anthony Hopkins as Talbot's father. Now don't get me wrong, I can watch Hopkins peel a grape and be wildly entertained, but what he's doing here at times borders on self-parody, or worse, silliness. I was never quite sure what his motivations were. He seems pleased that his estranged son has returned to him, but he also seems to want him dead. And while I could never get bored watching Hopkins, that doesn't necessarily mean the man can't baffle me from time to time. This is one of those times. I liked the way he plays the elder Talbot, but I don't think I could interpret his behavior or pass a test on it. I'll leave it at that.

The film's most normal character is the inspector named Aberline (Hugo Weaving of The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings trilogies). He's after a killer, and he has a pretty good idea who that killer is, especially after he sees Lawrence transform before his very eyes and escape from the mental asylum. His approach to capturing said villain may not sit well with the locals, but it's pretty straightforward and logical. Weaving's voice just projects authority, and anything he says, I believe. Even as grossly underwritten as his character is, there's no denying the Weaving is fantastic in this movie.

Perhaps the element to The Wolfman that excited me most was the look of the werewolf. Baker's creation is a variation of Lon Chaney, Jr.'s version of the character, and when I saw the creature in a white shirt, black vest and tattered pants, I got a little excited. There's no shame. He's not going for the wolf look; he's attempting a half-man/half-wolf entity. I also loved the way the upright running Wolfman could lean forward and become the running-on-all-fours Wolfman to pick up some speed. And the transformation sequences are the real star of the show. You hear Talbot's bones snap as they realign for a more feral look. He human teeth fall out as his canine fangs move in for the night. It's an ugly, gut-wrenching experience, and there is little on this earth that matches it on the coolness meter.

The Wolfman has trouble connecting when it needs to a lot of the time, which is not to say it never does; it just doesn't do so enough for me to flat out praise this movie with no reservations. Some exceptional performances push the film just far enough over the line for me to recommend what this odd work is trying to accomplish. I give it points for trying to make a horror film in a style that nobody else has in years, or maybe never has with this specific blend of classic drama, modern butchery, and timeless wackiness. If you have a great fondness for the werewolf legend, I think you'll appreciate what Johnston & Co. are attempting to do here, even when it doesn't always work. If the extent of your werewolf knowledge is what you've seen in the Underworld and Twilight movies, please step aside and let the grown folks enjoy their monsters. The Wolfman is a horror film made for thinking adults who reject the idea that you need to empty your brain to enjoy a scary movie.

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief

Forgive me for being slightly outside the demographic for the Percy Jackson books that are apparently quite popular among the teenagers. And having once been a teen obsessed with Greek mythology, I can fully understand the level of passion some kids might feel about this modern retelling of the adventures of the Perseus myth populated largely by gods and teenagers. And even if your film history knowledge is surface level, then you also know that this is essentially a remake of Clash of the Titans, but populated by hormonally challenged youngsters. I like the concept of The Lightning Thief more than the finished product, but what we're left with isn't altogether unwatchable even if it is completely lacking in depth, substance or character development.

My initial problems with this movie begin with its premise. Apparently somebody has stolen Zeus' master lightning bolt (the only side effect that I could see was that thunderstorms aren't accompanied by a light show) and the leader of the gods of Mt. Olympus is pissed. For reasons that are never quite explained (actually, quite a bit of the plot isn't explained; it just is), Zeus (Sean Bean) blames the son of Poseidon (Kevin McKidd from "Rome"), a boy named Percy Jackson (Logan Lerman, recently seen in Gamer and 3:10 To Yuma), who isn't even aware that his whore of a human mother (the utterly wasted Catherine Keener) had sex with the god of the sea. OK, explain this. Zeus and Poseidon have this initial conversation about the missing lightning bolt being on Earth on top of a building. Why? Don't know. It's never explained. A better title for this film might have been The Plot Thief.

Suddenly, the entire god community is after Percy because they think he has the lightning. So his mother sends Percy off to what can only be described as demigod camp, along with his best friend from school, Grover, (Brandon T. Jackson from Tropic Thunder) who we learn is a satyr and Percy's protector. The camp is a ridiculous place run by a centaur named Mr. Brunner (Pierce Brosnan; yes, the former James Bond plays a half-man/half-horse creature), and it is there that Percy is trained to go out into the world and find out who really stole the lightning. At the camp, he meets the hottest girl there, Athena's daughter Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario), and the pair plus Grover set out to save the world (and Percy's useless mother, who has been kidnapped by Hades).

Director Chris Columbus is probably exactly the right person to tackle this material, having a proven track record getting decent performances out of young actors in such works as the first two Home Alone movies, Adventures in Babysitting, Mrs. Doubtfire and the first two Harry Potter films (he also did last year's I Love You, Beth Cooper, but we won't speak of that). But there's something slightly desperate about the film as it tries in vain to seem hip and youthful. Lerman plays Percy like a bit of a cocky douche, Jackson must resign himself to playing a cliché sidekick, and Daddario has a heaving bosom. That's really all I took away from their characters.

In fact, there were only two scenes that I even half-heartedly enjoyed. One features Uma Thurman as a dominatrix-style Medusa, with a few dozen very aggressive snakes in her hair that not only swirl around her head but, if she gets close enough to you, start entangling themselves in yours as well. It's a great creep-out moment. The other decent sequence occurs when the trio makes their way to the underworld and meet Hades, played as a sort of aging rock star by Steve Coogan, with his scheming lady friend Persephone (Rosario Dawson) by his side. But for every successful attempt at entertainment, we get two or three truly awful moments or performances, such as Joe Pantoliano as Percy's stereotypically evil stepfather. Even the moment when Percy makes it to Olympus to return the lightning is a huge let down. Oh look, "CSI: NY's" Melina Kanakaredes shows up as Athena and does...nothing but look purdy.

I think it's fair to say that the Harry Potter films set the standard for this type of fantasy storytelling, in which the lead characters are teens or slightly older, and honestly no other attempted film series has even come close. Look at The Golden Compass, or the Chronicles of Narnia movies, or The Vampire's Assistant. None of these even come close to what Potter has built, for the pure and simple reason that those films don't try to appeal to families or kids. Each of those movies was made with the intention of being a great movie, not a great one for a certain demographic. Kids don't need their movies to talk down to them; they want characters they can aspire to be, not ones just like them or more than likely a lot less intelligent. The Lightning Thief has no idea what teens are like, so it doesn't even bother to inject its characters with anything resembling emotional content or its story with anything remotely like logic or consistency. I'd rather you skip this and go check out Avatar again if you must see a film with minimal depth.

Valentine's Day

Sometimes, I see a film that reminds me what my job really is. Yes, the primary function I (and many critics) have assigned myself is to steer you in the direction of great films, some you may have heard of and hopefully a few that you haven't. Discovery is one of the truest thrills I get, and passing on great discoveries is so much fun. But this is only half the job; the other half is protecting you. I'll step in front of a bullet or a knife or a Chinese throwing star or a warrior's spear; sure, things will get messy, but I'll get back up, wipe off the blood, throw a Band-Aid on my wounds, and prepare for the next assault. But tonight, I've seen a movie that may have actually killed a huge portion of my soul. In its lame and obvious attempts to teach me about the true meaning of love, it may have introduced a level of hate into my life that may change me to my core. I'm talking about the type of hate that makes you angry enough to kill baby ducks with a shotgun or smother infants in their sleep. Please, allow me to welcome you to the shameless world of Valentine's Day, directed by Garry Marshall, who hasn't made an even partially worthy film in 20 years (yes, Pretty Woman came out in 1990).

There have been a lot of films lately about the end of civilization, but none of them hold a candle to the shallow, emotionally barren wasteland laid out before us in Valentine's Day, a film in which dozens of Los Angelinos find love, lose love, and find love again (in most cases) all of the span of about 18 hours. Every joke is told as if Marshall is holding a spotlight right on it just on the off chance you might not catch the humor, because Garry Marshall is, if nothing else, about as subtle as a sack of doorknobs being smashed across your skull. You can almost hear the director behind the camera uttering "Get it?" after each clever pun or earth-shattering PG-13 innuendo. Where's that baby duck, and what did I do with my 12 gauge?

Where to begin dissecting this nightmare...I think I'll start with the all-star cast, who are all doing their darndest to impersonate people with depth and souls. But that's near impossible to do with a script (from Katherine Fugate) that is essentially a collection of fortune-cookie philosophies on relationships strung together and connected in ways that don't actually amount to anything. I know that interwoven plot threads and interconnected characters are all the rage these days, but those connections have to mean something and have a purpose.

Without ruining the desperately clever twists and turns of Valentine's Day, there are two characters I want to focus on, because their time together could have actually amounted to something beyond a pair of ridiculous revelations in the film's final moments. Julia Roberts and Bradley Cooper are strangers sitting next to each other on a plane. She's a soldier (still in camouflage) returning home for one day's leave from an unnamed war; he's wearing a nice suit and doesn't seem to mind when she falls asleep on his shoulder. Every so often, the film returns to them as they attempt to figure out what the other one has going on. He assumes that she is returning home on Valentine's Day to visit a special fella; she's got him pegged as a considerate but serious guy with no connections back home. It's not the greatest story ever told, but at least I was curious and mildly invested in what happens to these two. In the movie's parting music montage, we learn exactly who both of them are really going home to see. They aren't connected in any way, and the revelation is without any meaning beyond tying their pleasant, mediocre story thread into the rest of the shit that passes for forward motion in this movie.

Let me put this to you another way. Think for a minute about all of those terrible romantic comedies that come out every year (several of which were also directed by Garry Marshall); then imagine all of those miserable couples collected in one movie, each with their own slapstick humor moment, quirky best friend, overly scripted declaration of love (usually in a very public setting). Many of the actresses that have appeared in those craptastic films are represented here--Jessicas Alba and Biel, Jennifer Garner, Anne Hathaway, Roberts, and I'll even throw in singer Taylor Swift (in her feature debut), who it seems is being groomed to make these kinds of horrible movies. Hell, there are four Oscar winners and two nominees in the cast. It doesn't matter; they all suck in Valentine's Day. Consider this potentially awesome character description: Anne Hathaway as a phone sex operator. Ah, but it's PG-13 phone sex, so guess what? Even the prospect of Hathaway talking dirty is denied me. Oh the humanity.

And the men don't fare much better. Topher Grace, Taylor Lautner, Eric Dane, Jaime Foxx, Patrick Dempsey, and the list goes on. Is it weird that the best male performance in the movie is from Ashton Kutcher? Yes. Yes, it is. Here are some other names in the cast to chew on: Kathy Bates, Queen Latifah, Emma Roberts, Hector Elizondo, Shirley MacLaine, and the true stamp of quality, George Lopez. Fuck. Me. Seriously, if you pay money to see Valentine's Day, there might be a piece of your brain missing, the part that controls reason and logic. You might be a sociopath, and if you aren't, this movie will probably turn you into one. And if, after all of these warnings, you still go and like Valentine's Day, then I hate you. You are a person deserving of all the hate in the world, because you have blindly accepted that love stories in movies have to be spoon fed to you like so much uncomplicated gruel. Plus I heard this movie will give you cancer, so if you die soon after watching it, you have no one to blame but yourself. So there.

Life as Lincoln

There are no such things as dull subjects for documentaries, only dull ways of telling the stories of these subjects. On the surface, director Caitlin Grogan's film about three of the hundreds (maybe more like thousands) of men who impersonate our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, may seem like a pointless and tedious endeavor. But nothing could be further from the truth. As Grogan digs deep into the lives of these three and what inspired them to don the stovepipe hat and memorize the Gettysburg Address (some even come equipped with arm candy in the form of a Mary Todd impersonator), we learn a great deal about human behavior, hero worship, redemption, and identity. It seems that each of our Abes has had a bit of upheaval in his life, whether it be an ugly divorce, a religious conversion, or the act of becoming Lincoln as a release from a less-than-challenging day job.

Some of my favorite sequences involve the Lincoln conventions, during which a bazillion Lincoln gather along with a few dozen Marys and walk around hoping to get noticed. That is one thing all of these impersonators seem to have in common--they love the attention, whether it's at a historical society, a memorial, or something a little more commercial, like a mall opening or state fair. Armed with a fairly rudimentary knowledge of Lincoln's life (born in Kentucky, moved to Indiana, moved to Illinois, became president, freed the slaves, shot in Ford's Theater), these players and frustrated actors have idealized Lincoln in a way many historians refuse to (thanks Howard Zinn). But they also have not only taken on traits of the object of their obsession, they have also cast their own beliefs onto their hero. One fundamentalist Christian presenter uses his presentations to school children to push his religious beliefs on people (including his views on abortion), while others seem to think Lincoln would have evolved to openly cast out religion from the government. It's a bit strange that their views on what Lincoln would have thought of the modern world happen to line up rather nicely with their own views.

Grogan simply sets out to discover what types of people would devote huge portions of their lives to portraying a man worshiped second only to Jesus in some circles. At one point for each of the subjects, you hit this "Ah, ha!" moment where things kind of click in your brain as to what drew each of these men to this odd lifestyle. It's a fun game/experiment that I truly enjoyed observing. I don't think I'd want to hang out with any of these guys, but that makes them no less curious and interesting. And Life as Lincoln is endlessly fascinating. The film opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center with screenings on Friday, Feb. 12 at 8pm, Saturday, Feb. 13 at 8pm, and Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 8:15pm. Director Caitlin Grogan will be present for audience discussion at all screenings.

Saint John of Las Vegas

There are some actors whose very presence in a movie, even in a small supporting part, makes that movie a little bit better. I don't think I'll get much argument that Steve Buscemi is one of those actors. So when such an actor lands the rare leading role, well, that's almost more than one should be allowed to dream for. The indie comedy Saint John of Las Vegas isn't a particularly good film, despite its strong cast, but it's almost impossible for me to outright dismiss the work simply because of how rarely Buscemi scores a leading role these days. I think about how compelling he was in just a single scene in something like last year's The Messenger or as Michael Cera's father last month in Youth In Revolt, and it makes it almost criminal not to ignore the many shortcomings of Saint John just so we can relish in Buscemi's awkward charms.

John has a gambling addiction, seemingly fueled by a good run once in his life when he lived in Las Vegas. Presently dwelling in Albuquerque and working for an insurance company in some sort of data entry job, he still has a tough time keeping $20 in his wallet when there are lottery scratch tickets nearby. In the office, he sits next to a weirdly optimistic Jill (Sarah Silverman), who clearly thinks the world of him, and the potential for a real romance leads John to ask his boss (The Station Agent's Peter Dinklage) for a promotion and a raise as a fraud investigator. He's assigned to shadow Virgil (Romany Malco of The 40-Year-Old Virgin) on a particularly sticky case involving a stripper (Emmanuelle Chriqui, confined to a wheelchair and wearing a neck brace...sexy) injured in a car wreck, and the two men set out to prove the car isn't as totaled as the owners are claiming so the claim doesn't have to be paid.

First-time writer-director Hue Rhodes' film has all of the trappings of a debut indie road film, which essentially means characters float in and out of John's field of vision, each one with their own set of quirks that never really adds much to the plot other than a modicum of humor. Hey, there's Tim Blake Nelson as a nudist with a shotgun; whoa, is that John Cho under those fireproof clothes playing a human torch at a carnival? Yes, yes it is. So what? So if you do decide to check out Saint John of Las Vegas (a film that shows very little of Vegas because Buscemi tries the entire film to avoid the city), don't expect anything earth shattering in terms of plot or witty dialogue. What you will get is solid performances from Buscemi, Silverman and Malco. The rest of the actors are just trying way too hard to get noticed in their lesser roles. But as someone who worships at the alter of Steve Buscemi, I felt satisfied with what he brought to the otherwise largely disposable film. Take that for what it's worth. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Still Bill

One of my favorite music documentaries from last year's SXSW Film Festival was co-directors Damani Baker and Alex Vlack's Still Bill, profiling the soulful singer Bill Withers, whose impressive string of hits in the 1970s and '80s abruptly stopped when he just decided he was done with music in 1985. Withers' songs struck such a chord that if he'd only written one of his best known songs--take your pick from "Lean On Me" or "Ain't No Sunshine" or "Use Me" or "Lovely Day" or "Just the Two of Us"--he'd still be a legend, but of course his career saw nine Grammy nominations and many more hits, including the deeply personal "Grandma's Hands," during his 15-year run.

Not surprisingly, we learn from this excellent film that many of Withers' songs arose from years of pain growing up teased and tormented for being an asthmatic as a child. Baker and Vlack follow Withers on a journey through his childhood neighborhood in West Virginia, visiting old Navy friends, and spending time with his grown children who also have musical aspirations. The film spends a great deal of time with the Withers of today, while still doing his past justice through some impressive archival footage, including footage of his participation in Ali-Foreman "Rumble in the Jungle" concert event.

Rather than simply retell Withers' biography with old clips, the focus of the movie is Withers today in the context of all that he had accomplished years ago, and his ongoing struggle to find an outlet for expression in a world that he's afraid has passed him by. He dabbles with recording and writing during the course of the movie, but seems to get more joy out of listening to his able-voiced daughter than tackling a song himself. I really grew to love the person Withers has become and not just because of what he accomplished in his past. Still Bill manages to find substance, joy, and value in all phases of his life, and that's what a solid biography film should do. The movie opens today for a weeklong engagement at Facets Cinematheque.

 
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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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