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Column Fri Apr 09 2010

Date Night, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, After.Life, The Greatest, and When You're Strange

Date Night

If I really wanted to, I could write this review in one paragraph. In fact, with most comedies, a paragraph--or sometimes a sentence--is all you need. If you laughed more often than you didn't, a comedy is probably worth seeing. The story and the characters are important to a degree, but it's that laugh factor that matters most of all. And Date Night, with its many flaws and occasional dead spots, still had me laughing a whole lot, largely on the strength of the sweet married couple at the center, played by two Second City vets Steve Carell and Tina Fey.

Date Night comes in at less than 90 minutes with credits, so it seems a little unfair to say that it often feels bloated and weighed down with characters and story. But the truth is, this film could have been one of the best comedies in recent memory with a one-hour running time, and that would include a solid end-credit blooper reel. But the truth is that this film about a long-married, slightly dorky couple attempting to put the spark back in their marriage by coming to New York City from their home in New Jersey for dinner works best when it stays small and intimate, which is why it's so frustrating that it is constantly going for big, broad laughs.

Phil and Claire Foster arrive at one of the city's trendiest new restaurants without a reservation, and with a frustrating evening at the bar that would likely result in no table, they take the reservation of an apparently no-show couple. And thus begins a wild and wacky evening of being mistaken for the couple whose reservation they stole, a couple who somehow has a flash drive loaded with incriminating evidence against one of the city's most powerful people. The often-forced plot throws dirty cops, car chases, and gun fights at them at a rapid pace, which I'm only willing to forgive because it puts our heroes in contact with a fantastic array of famous and funny faces in small supporting roles. But if this film's focus has been on what makes a marriage work in the relentlessly nonstop world of the Fosters' suburban life, that might have made for a movie of substance. And while I'm sure that screenwriter Josh Klausner (whose other writing credits include a screenplay polish on Shrek the Third and co-writing Shrek Forever After) means well, were it not for a healthy does of great improv work on the part of Carell and Fey, this movie would have died early and often.

Neither actor overplays their dorky, out-of-touch characters too much. But when Claire spots a well-known musician in the restaurant at a table near them, her reaction ("Hey, that's Will.i.Am...from... Fergie") is not only funny but it's also 100 percent accurate. The movie is blessedly filled with little moments like that. But a car chase involving two cars locked at the front bumper or a couple of sequences involving a police officer (Taraji P. Henson) attempting to help the Fosters survive their evening being chased by dirty cops (Common and Jimmi Simpson) feel like filler, when I would have rather listened to the Fosters talk more about their relationship. The scenes in which Claire and Phil analyze their relationship are not just truthful, but in the hands of these comedy giants (both married for many years), are extremely amusing. I spent most of this film with a smile on my face, punctuated by moments of full-blown laughter.

As I said before, this film has a busload of unexpected surprises in terms of casting. Actors like William Fichtner and Mark Wahlberg, both of whom provide a lot of laughs, are in the opening credits. But then you get the likes of Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, James Franco, Mila Kunis, and Ray Liotta just showing up in relatively small parts and usually killing. Franco and Kunis, in particular, are great as the sleazy couple whose reservation the Fosters stole.

To simply run through the parts of the plot that work or the jokes that made me laugh seems silly, especially for a film like Date Night, which relies to heavily on off-handed comments that steal all the laughs from the scripted plot. Carell and Fey don't need to be talked up by me. They have proven themselves on television and movies that they know the exact right way to deliver a joke. What is less certain is that the two know how to make comedy happen in the midst of a big, dumb action sequence that seems more of an exercise in killing time than anything else. Carell did alright in Get Smart, but Fey just looks lost or even bored during these scattered moments. Director Shawn Levy has made a career out of drawn-out effects-and-stunt-driven comedy sequences in such films as the remakes of Cheaper By the Dozen and The Pink Panther, as well as the hugely successful Night at the Museum movies, but less is far more effective in Date Night, and for the most part every opportunity Levy takes to dial it back a bit is successful (or at least sets the stage for success to happen).

I'll admit, I was genuinely surprised at how much I laughed during Date Night, a movie that works quite well at giving us a peek into this crowded but functional marriage. It doesn't quite dive as deep into what makes a relationship work the same way Knocked Up or I Love You, Man did, but those films were two hours long a piece, and they didn't feel the need to throw in fight scenes and crooked-cop clichés. Some of my favorite material involves the scenes with Wahlberg, as Claire's always-shirtless former real estate client who helps them with some investigative work. Those sequences are perfect, for no other reason than Wahlberg's ripped body makes Carell wildly uncomfortable. More moments like those would have sent this movie into the stratosphere. Still, what we're left with is pretty strong stuff. There's pretty much no way you won't laugh during Date Night, and it's an action movie weaved into a chick flick. If I were a more cynical person, I might gripe about somebody working overtime to please two demographics, but the fact is the film works, so I'll simply leave you by letting men and women know that you'll both dig this one a whole lot.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

If you asked me what Werner Herzog's latest release (coming on the heels of his The Bad Lieutenant DVD release) was about, I'm not sure I could tell you. I could tell you what transpires in the film, but actually getting the core of what the film is about is another matter. And I think audience members should make particular note that David Lynch is listed as one of the film's executive producers, since My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? seems to travel down Lynch's frequently traveled Road to Madness, complete with stream-of-consciousness dialogue, senseless acts of violence, Southern Gothic motifs, ostriches, flamingoes, and midgets. And at the core of the film is an astonishing performance by Steppenwolf Theatre actor Michael Shannon, who has shaken up the acting world in such films as Bug, Shotgun Stories, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, The Runaways, The Greatest (which comes out in some cities this week), and Revolutionary Road, for which he received an Oscar nomination. He also had a small role in Herzog's Bad Lieutenant film. If you need crazy, Shannon's got your crazy.

But he's never played anyone quite as off his rocker than Brad McCullum, an actor in a Sophocles play who decides he's Muslim and wields a sword, which he eventually uses to slay his overbearing mother (Grace Zabriskie from "Big Love"). I'm not giving anything away by saying this--most of these events occur or are talked about in the first 10 minutes of the film. Eventually the police (led by Willem Dafoe and partner Michael Peña) trap Brad in his house, in which he says he's holding hostages. The bulk of the film follows the Dafoe and Peña as they investigate the events that led to the murder and hostage situation and gives us flashbacks into Brad's fractured life that caused him to snap. Helping the cops along the way are Brad's fiancé (Chloe Sevigny), Udo Kier as a friend from the play, Brad Dourif as well as Loretta Devine and Irma P. Hall as neighbors of Brad's now-dead mother.

There were times watching My Son, My Son that I honestly believed the actors were making it up as they went along, but there are plenty of beautifully orchestrated sequences here to remind me I was watching the work of a master. The film is a slow descent toward insanity, with a dash of freak show lightly sprinkled on top, and with this caliber of acting on display, I could have danced with these characters all night. Shannon in particular is impossible to take your eyes off. He can furrow his brow and scare the bejesus out of me, so imagine my reaction when he emerges in one scene dressed in ceremonial robes waving a sword around. Why isn't he in every movie? Actually, he has been lately, and movies are better because of it.

The screenplay, co-written by Herzog and Rescue Dawn crew member Herbert Golder is said to be based on a true story, but I kind of don't care, and the title card that says that at the end of the film actually made me laugh out loud. My Son, My Son is far more interesting if I think of it as the product of a warped artistic mind. And there are moments in this movie where it just won't make any sense. Characters stare silently at the camera on occasion, are constantly reciting words that typically register as gibberish, and have reactions that are baffling to the point of being comical. And maybe all of this is the point. But it's never boring, it's never not compelling, and it adds another piece to the Herzog puzzle that I will gladly attempt to decipher.

It's one of the greatest feelings in the world to have absolutely no idea what is about to appear on the screen next and no clue what it means right away. Sometimes you can figure it out; other times you just move on to the next spectacular clue in the mystery. Herzog does this so well sometimes, and with two films in a row, he has given us leading characters filled with rage, humor, and madness that are worth following. My Son, My Son is less accessible than Bad Lieutenant, but it's no less fascinating. If you're feeling a bit experimental, this film should quench your thirst. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

After.Life

Whoa whoa whoa. What the hell is this? Liam Neeson is in yet another movie, and it might be the least interesting and most ridiculous of the bunch? Bring it forth and let it be judged. Seriously though, since Taken finally made it stateside at the beginning of last year, Neeson has been an acting machine that seems more concerned with quantity than quality. I kind of liked the small Irish film Five Minutes of Heaven from 2009 and I was a fan of Chloe, which hit theaters in recent weeks. And if you caught his turn as Zeus in last week's kind-of-fun Clash of the Titans (I didn't get to review this since I saw it after it opened, but I saw it in 2-D and believe I'm better for the experience) then you probably caught the trailer for The A-Team, in which he plays Hannibal. And you'll see (or hear Neeson in two more films before the year is out: as the voice of Aslan the lion again in the third Chronicles of Narnia installment The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and in Paul Haggis' new film The Next Three Days, co-starring Russell Crowe.

But After.Life is a different beast altogether, and one that has me torn more than I could have possibly imagined. A kind of Gothic horror attempt, the film is the no-so-simple story of Anna (Christina Ricci), a young, attractive school teacher who has a fight with her boyfriend Paul (Justin Long) and goes running out of the restaurant where they are eating to drive in a terrible rainstorm. Then she gets in the crash and dies. Boom. But then she wakes up lying a cold slab in a funeral parlor, her body is the early stages of being prepared for her burial by funeral director Eliot Deacon (Neeson), who seems to have the ability to talk to the dead and help those that aren't quite ready to make the move from living to dead. When we first meet him, he's having a pleasant conversation with a corpse he's just made up for a funeral. The corpse isn't talking back, of course, but Deacon's tone is soothing, and we suspect he's very good and easing those recently deceased souls toward whatever is next. But Ricci seems especially chatty and mobile, and Deacon can tell she's going to have a tough transition. So while he stitches up her cuts, injects her with fluid to keep rigor mortis from setting in, and dresses her in her funeral clothes, she fights him at every turn, including an escape attempt or two.

Neeson has always been a voice of authority in my world; he just has that booming tone and straightforward glare that made me believe every word he said. But for most of After.Life, all he's doing is saying variations on "You're dead." And after about the 2,000th time he tells Ricci that, we start to think that maybe he's saying it a bit too much, especially when he starts pontificating that she had been dead long before her body landed on his table and how most humans are already dead because they've given up living interesting or fulfilling lives. Uh oh. And then there's Justin Long, who overacts like a beast as he stumbles around the film with his floppy hair, insisting that his precious Anna isn't dead because he doesn't feel it. And then there's this young student of Anna's, who seems to possess similar gifts to Deacon, and makes friends with the funeral director. One of the highlights of the film is when Long slaps this kid across the face in front of a hallway filled with teachers and kids.

In fact, this film is wall-to-wall scenes of people being loud in normally quiet public places like restaurants and funerals; it gets old fast. First-time feature director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo (bless you) has a certain gift for making a scene look good, but her sense of pacing and story flow is about as off kilter as it gets. On nearly every level, this is a poor, pathetic attempt to construct a pseudo-horror film about what it really means to be alive or dead. So why am I so torn about After.Life? Easy. Because Christina Ricci spends about 75 percent of this movie in some state of undress. The movie should have been called After.Clothes. Being dead apparently makes you a nudist. The one thing I can absolutely say about this movie is that even at its most boring and tedious, I was rarely bored. I hate to boil it down to these essentials, but the fact is that this much nudity kept me interested in what was going on in this movie. It didn't improve the caliber of the script or the acting or the directing or the frighteningly poor editing, but it did make them all annoy me slightly.

I'm in no way, shape or form recommending any right-thinking human being go see this movie unless you're a Liam Neeson completist, but for her pervy types, there's a lot here to get you through the day. So either the filmmakers are the stupidest people on the planet, or they're the smartest. Feel free to decide for yourself. I could almost see this movie gaining some sort of cult status if it had just a little more going for it, like some genuine camp (although Neeson's performance comes close). Time will tell. Until then, you've been warned and alerted. The film opens today at AMC Pipers Alley theater, so that should tell you something.

The Greatest

In this week's offering in our "Pierce Brosnan Movie of the Week" series, we offer up what I believe will be Brosnan's final film of 2010 after Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, The Ghost Writer, and Remember Me. The Greatest is a small, honest film about grief from first-time writer-director Shana Feste (who has already shot her next film, Love Don't Let Me Down with Gwyneth Paltrow and Garrett Hedlund). The Greatest is not a phenomenal work that rewrites the book on movies about a family and loved ones coping with the death of a beloved one, but it is a film that features a richly talented group of actors who dig their claws into this sometimes thin material and raise it up to the point where it is far more watchable than it would have been under other circumstances.

One of the strangest things about this movie is that Susan Sarandon (playing the emotionally crippled mother of the now-dead Bennett Brewer) made a very similar movie less than 10 years ago called Moonlight Mile, in which she also played the grieving mother of a deceased character. In both films, the parents of the dead child get to know their significant other. In this film, it is Bennett's new girlfriend Rose (An Education's Carey Mulligan), whom the family has never met before a car accident that killed their son (seen in many a flashback and played by Kick-Ass star Aaron Johnson). Brosnan plays Bennett's buttoned-down father, and Johnny Simmons (last seen in Jennifer's Body and soon to be seen in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) plays the fuck-up, drug-addict younger brother Ryan.

Since Rose's mother is also a bit of a mess, she comes to live with Bennett's family during her pregnancy. Grace (Sarandon) is resentful of the girl and feeling like her son kept this relationship from her, while Allen (Brosnan) finds Rose to be the perfect conduit to a son he never new. But what I liked most about the plot are Rose's attempts to learn from his family as much as she can about the boyfriend she barely knew, who died just hours after the pair lost their virginity to each other. Her struggle to find out about Bennett's essence is at the heart of The Greatest. She needs something of substance to tell her child, and some members of the Brewer family can barely speak Bennett's name. There's a subplot involving the brother going to a support group for lost family members where he meets a potential love interest that is truly weak, but thankfully the filmmaker seems to care more about scenes with Brosnan and Mulligan, who have a wonderful chemistry and dynamic. We can see them helping each other, and those moments work the best. Sarandon's scenes tend to feel overplayed here, but they aren't all bad.

The Greatest is across-the-board predictable, but that's not why it doesn't work at times. The flaws in the script are sometimes mighty, and they tend to drag down and distract from what could have been a solid family drama about coping with death under the most unusual of circumstances. It was tough for me to believe that Bennett's parents wouldn't have been thrilled that a piece of him in the form of this baby had survived his death, but that's never really discussed. Instead what we get is Sarandon looking in on the comatose driver of the car that ran into and killed her son. She becomes obsessed with finding out what his final moments of life were like, and when the driver (Michael Shannon) wakes up, his words aren't particularly comforting for her (or interesting for us). Still, when all is said and done, this movie has some above-average performances trapped in a subpar story. If that sounds like a recommendation, feel free to take that home with you. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

When You're Strange

I have no way of knowing if this is true or not, since I never saw the version of this impressive documentary of The Doors that premiered at Sundance more than a year ago, but it's my understanding the version of the film that is finally making its way into theaters for a limited run is different than the original. I caught When You're Strange on one of the closing days of the SXSW Film Festival and I was as struck by what it doesn't do as what it does accomplish. Writer-director Tom DiCillo (Box of Moon Light, Living in Oblivion, Delirious) has gotten his hands on a remarkable amount of previous unseen footage of The Doors, both on stage and off, including what appears to be a restored short film that singer Jim Morrison shot in the desert that made we wonder if the Lizard King might have added acting to his roster of artistic endeavors that included poetry, singing, filmmaking, and ingesting wheelbarrows full of drugs and booze.

In an interesting but crucial choice, DiCillo doesn't bother with any modern interviews with band members or others who inhabited the band's world during the short time it existed. Narrated with a sense of importance and understanding by Johnny Depp, When You're Strange offers a fairly standard chronological timeline of Morrison, Ray Manzarek, Robby Krieger, and John Densmore from childhood, through college, to the early club days of the band when Morrison couldn't even face the audience, presumably because of stage fright. DiCillo simply immerses us in the time and place. Every photo or scrap of footage he can get his hands on is put on display in one form or another. Some of the most fascinating material is the behind-the-scenes look at the band recording, a process that inevitably involved waiting for Morrison to sober up enough to sing. His drunken antics both on and off stage are on full display in the film, as are several moments when Morrison was absolutely on in concert or for a TV appearance (including the notorious "Ed Sullivan Show" brilliantly recreated in Oliver Stone's The Doors).

Although current interviews aren't used here, DiCillo does use plenty of interview footage from the period. The process for piecing together this film seems to be that if the footage comes from a time when the band was still around, it could be used. The only modern perspective comes from Depp's narration. I appreciate that the possibility is raised that Morrison's behavior may have been calculated to a certain degree, that although he may have acted quite frequently, it was all a part of his image, which he was very much in control of. This is a theory I've often considered myself about Morrison. DiCillo does one of the best jobs I've seen of explaining the role the other band members played in the studio and on stage, as they were often required to play to cover for Morrison's sloppy behavior. The film also admits that there came a point that audiences were showing up to Doors' concerts not for the music, but with the hope that Morrison would have a meltdown. At a certain point, the odds seemed good he would.

When You're Strange is a film that pays tribute to its subject without over-glorifying it. It becomes clear that there was no other band like The Doors on the scene at the time, and no other band picked up the very popular mantle for quite some time after Morrison died in Paris. They were an oddity on the landscape, and in many ways continue to be so to this day. In the end, DiCillo wisely lets the music do the talking for The Doors, and the film features several great songs in their entirety (or close to it). The movie made me remember that there was a time when I basically worshipped this band; now I remember why. I'm guessing die-hard fans are the ones who are going to show up to this film to hear and see this rare footage and have their passion for The Doors rekindled, but I'm hoping a few people less familiar with the band show up for a much-needed schooling. Perhaps for different reasons, both groups will enjoy, I believe. This film opens today exclusively, of all places, at the Davis Theater at 4614 N. Lincoln Ave.

 
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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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