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Column Fri Jun 11 2010

Winnebago Man, The A-Team, The Karate Kid, Solitary Man, Ondine, OSS 117: Lost in Rio, Daddy Longlegs, & The Little Traitor

Winnebago Man

Hey, everyone. Before we dive into this week's reviews, I wanted to alert you to a special event happening next week. As part of the Just for Laughs festival invading Chicago in the coming week, the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening two excellent works, including a preview of a superb documentary opening later in the summer across the nation.

At the SXSW Film Festival of 2009, I saw Winnebago Man, one of the best documentaries I saw that year (it made my 15 Best Docs list, coming in at #8). I felt for certain that this profile of one of the internet's first YouTube heroes, Jack Rebney ("the angriest man in the world"), would be released without hesitation. I guess with docs, it's a bit tougher to predict what will get released or catch on, but I can't imagine a single soul watching this movie and not finding some aspect utterly fascinating. Rebney's profanity laden outtakes from what appears to be an in-house selling tool for the Winnebago sales staff made the VHS rounds before they were put on YouTube, where millions of people giggled with delight at Rebney's seemingly insane rants. Part of the film is a thoughtful examination of what makes some internet clips a phenomenon and others seem forced and not as interesting. The rest of Winnebago Man is the search for the reclusive Rebney and attempts to get him to a found-footage film festival where he can meet his adoring fans. This part of the film is absolutely gripping and, in so many ways, heart wrenching.

Recently, I received word that Winnebago Man was picked up by Kino International and will begin what I hope is a fruitful national run in New York on July 9. Even better news for folks in Chicago is that the film will be previewed at the Gene Siskel Film Center on June 16 at 8pm, with director Ben Steinbauer on hand to answer audience questions, with me playing the part of Q&A moderator. I can guarantee you this thing will sell out, so buy your tickets early here. DO. NOT. MISS. IT.

And for the record, the other Just for Laughs film screening at the Siskel Center is the documentary I Am Comic, screening June 18 at 8:45pm. The film features interviews with 85 comics, who detail their entry into comedy and how to keep a career in the field going strong. I'll have a full review next week.

The A-Team

Not all that long ago, Ain't It Cool News had an infrequent but extremely popular writer named Neill Cumpston. There are few weeks that go by that I don't see some big, dumb Hollywood production and wonder WWNCS (What Would Neill Cumpston Say). He tended to focus on action films--the more extravagant and ridiculous, the better in his estimation. I'm in fairly regular contact with the many who was Mr. Cumpston, and I never miss an opportunity to encourage him to bring back Neill. But he's a much busier man than he was when he did his last review for AICN, which I believe was Cloverfield. Still, after seeing The A-Team earlier this week, I couldn't resist dropping him a line and saying that if ever there was a film made for his unique brand of pre-adolescent, Big Gulp-fueled sensibilities, this was the one. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Now in no way am I implying that The A-Team is a masterful action epic; it is not. However, there is at least one exceptional, apocalyptic-sized sequence that serves as the film's messy climax that is pretty spectacular. The setting is a shipping port loaded with storage containers piled six or seven high. I think you'll know it when you see it. The rest of the film's action moments are varying degrees of pretty good; I don't think there's one that will let you down, but for the most part they are simply larger and louder versions of things we've seen before. But what The A-Team has going for it that a lot of other "tough-guy team" films like it (most recently The Losers) do not is an attitude and sense of humor that I find painfully lacking in other works.

I have never seen a single episode of "The A-Team" television show, and I shouldn't have to have to enjoy a movie like this. The film version of anything based on outside source material should stand on its own. I shouldn't have to have seen a TV series or read a particular book/comic book or seen the original version of a remake to appreciate what's right in front of me. That doesn't mean I don't try to do so, but I shouldn't have to. That said, I really grew to enjoy the company of the four men who make up this military special force that specializes in insane missions. As the film opens, we see the events that led up to these four thrill seekers together. The cigar-chomping Hannibal (Liam Neeson) and the handsome-as-fuck Face (Bradley Cooper) were Army Rangers who were already working together on a mission in Mexico. Hannibal breaks free of his captors and is racing to save Face, who is about to be executed by an even somebody or another. Hannibal runs into B.A. Baracus (UFC champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), a former Ranger as well. When the mission is complete, they decide they need one more member for their newfound Alpha Team in the form of a certifiably insane pilot named Murdock (Sharlto Copley in his first starring role since District 9).

In an interesting plot point, the events jump ahead several years ("8 years, 80 missions later" I believe is what the film tells us) to what is described as the final days of America's pull out from Iraq. The team is recruited off the record by CIA Agent Lynch (Watchmen's Patrick Wilson in a great, smarmy turn) to go into Baghdad and retrieve money printing plates that could be used to produce millions of dollars of counterfeit money by terrorists or unfriendly governments. Representing the Army's interests (in other words, telling the team they absolutely cannot go into Baghdad) is Jessica Biel's Charisa Sosa, an old flame of Face's (but who isn't?). Let me interrupt myself for a second to say that the weakest link in this movie is Biel. First off, I don't think she's a good actress. But that isn't why she makes this movie a lesser thing. Her character has no purpose other than to distract us from the proceedings. I can almost guarantee that when you see this movie, there will be a collective audience groan every time she appears on screen. In my head, the sound alternated between crickets, tires screeching to a halt, and a turntable needle scratching across vinyl. And the film doesn't even attempt to make her sexy, which would have been an acceptable use of her unique talents. I'm pretty sure you could remove her from the film, and the plot would barely be altered or compromised.

When the mission to Baghdad goes horribly wrong, the team is falsely accused of coming up with the mission on their own and going rogue, and all of them are sent to separate prisons. The rest of the film is basically the team trying to clear their name, avoid being captured, battle an evil private black ops group (led by sufficiently sleazy Brian Bloom, a video game voice actor in his first major role, although he did appear in Smokin' Aces), and try to distinguish the good guys from the bad. It's a romp, and it's hard to imagine that at some point during The A-Team you won't crack a smile or two. Director and co-writer Joe Carnahan (Narc, Smokin' Aces) has made the emphasis on fun and entertainment. There are a weirdly disproportionate number of shots of the team just laughing and whooping it up, and most of it comes across as genuine. Cooper seems like the ultimate frat boy, and Copley is playing a version of insane that is unlike anything I've seen before. It took me a while to realize that his character puts on different accents just because that's the way his brain works (or doesn't work). If he thinks a statement or joke would be more effective with a British or Australian accent, out it comes. Bizarre doesn't even begin to cover it.

One of these days, I'll get around to reviewing a film I saw at SXSW called Barry Munday, which showed me a comedic side to Patrick Wilson that I simply had no idea existed. The movie is above-average, but Wilson's performance elevates it to something far better. I think I can say the same thing about The A-Team. His cocksure delivery of some of the film's best dialogue was the highlight of this movie. And as much as I dreaded every second Biel was on screen, Wilson could not be up there enough in my estimation. If you feel the need to put a label on everything, I'm sure The A-Team is meant to be a comedy, and in a lot of ways, it works better as one than as an action movie. But the combination of the two makes this film a great, testosterone-enlarged romp--pointless and silly, yes, but also an endless source of amusement. I can't promise you belly laughs for days, but I think I'm safe in assuming you will have no trouble keeping your eyes open.

The Karate Kid

It's a good week for '80s nostalgia between The A-Team movie and this fairly faithful remake of the 1984 mega-hit The Karate Kid, starring Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita, directed by Rocky helmer John G. Avildsen. I didn't instantly gag when I heard that The Karate Kid was getting an update, nor was I repulsed by the idea that Will Smith's son Jaden was taking over the role of the young man who learns martial arts to defend against bullies and compete in a tournament. I was even impressed that the filmmakers chose the much-subdued Jackie Chan in the role of wise instructor. Aging Chan a bit and exchanging "wax on-wax off" for having young Smith put on, take off, and hang up his coat repeatedly actually seemed a bit inspired.

The remake on the whole is fairly watchable, especially with the changed setting to China due to Smith's Dre Parker's mother (Taraji P. Henson) getting transferred at her job. That seems a little far fetched, but the fact is that the change of scenery makes the martial arts feel a bit more at home. It is a bit strange that the practice of karate doesn't exist in this dojo, since Chan's Mr. Han is a kung fu master, so the film's title doesn't exactly make sense. But that's not The Karate Kid's biggest issue. In terms of plot, I don't really have any issues; quite the contrary, I was pretty impressed with the facelift the film got. But all of the familiar elements are still there: the outsider trying to find his place in a new setting, a "forbidden" young romance, and a secretive old man willing to help a kid tired of getting the crap kicked out of him. Chan isn't nearly as adorable as Pat Morita, but he's not supposed to be. And his secret backstory that led to him being in the downtrodden place he is today is much more tragic. Chan is actually the best thing in this movie, and yes, he does get to kick a little ass of his own.

Smith (who has previous appeared in Pursuit of Happyness and The Day the Earth Stood Still) is slowly developing as an actor, but he's not really expressive enough to pull of a lot of what he needs to in this role. That said, it looks like he's doing all or most of his own fighting, and he's damn good at it. The kid just lacks a certain spark that is needed to be a real presence on screen. You really notice the lack of that certain something in the scenes where he's flirting with his classmate Meiying (Wenwen Han). The scenes are supposed to be charming, but they are excruciatingly awkward. And while Smith still has a ways to go, he's not so bad that he tanks the movie. The film's biggest setback is its two-hour 20-minute running time. Holy crap, does this movie feel long.

I liked the bullies at kung fu school that Dre challenges in the film's final competition. Both the young fighters and their master are great screen villains, and their mantras about winning at any cost are ominous enough to let Dre know that a beating is probably in his future. I'll give Smith credit: he isn't afraid to let the world see him get a crushing smackdown more than once. I liked watching Mr. Han and Dre practice in the shadows of some of China's more beautiful landmarks, and overall viewing The Karate Kid is a pleasant enough experience.

I blame the lack of emotional engagement on director Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks, The Pink Panther 2), who just sort of lets the events play out as if he has no real investment in their outcome. This becomes most evident during the final act of the film--the competition. Since we assume the outcome will be the same as the original film, the filmmaker should have done something to make us care a bit more about some of the bigger issues the film brings up. Instead we get match, match, match, final match. Boom. Done. The matches are skillfully executed, there's no denying that, but I didn't care for one second who won. It's not a deal-breaker fault of The Karate Kid, but it keeps it from being exceptional, which it might have been since a lot of key pieces were in place and working great. I have a sneaking suspicion the film is going to do quite well this weekend, and a sequel could be made quite easily. I just wish a little more care had been taken to do what the original movie did to make us like its characters so much. Still, this update was a lot closer to being great than I thought it was, and seeing it will not tarnish your soul in any way.

Solitary Man

This one snuck up on me. Having grown up watching the movies of Michael Douglas, it seems strange to me that he's in the small-budget Solitary Man, a movie that many cities probably won't even get, and I would regard that as a crying shame. Douglas gives one of the best performances of his career playing Ben Kalmen, a divorced, womanizing, middle-aged man whose incredible business success as a used car dealership owner was torpedoed by illegal activities, while his marriage to Nancy (Susan Sarandon) was wrecked by his philandering. Kalmen spends nearly all of his waking hours trying to prove that he still has it, both in business and with the ladies, and he almost convinces us that it just might turn around for him. Actually, he doesn't have any trouble bedding women half his age, but his reputation in business keeps coming back to haunt him.

Solitary Man is a movie about the relationships in Ben's life and how they alter or don't alter his behavior. Early in the film, he goes to the doctor who informs him that further tests are needed because something doesn't look good. He agrees to the follow up and then runs from the office. He doesn't want to know when he's going to die because it might slow him own. Ben spends a great deal of time with his grown daughter (Jenna Fischer) and his only grandchild. Ben's semi-steady girlfriend Jordan (Mary-Louise Parker) needs him to drive her daughter Allyson (Imogen Poots) to a college she is considering and one where Ben still has enough pull (he had been a big donor) to get her in.

Other relationships in Ben's life include brand new ones such as a student (Jesse Eisenberg) at the school who Ben takes under his wing and advises on picking up women, and old friends like Danny Devito, a local restaurant owner who knew Ben when he was a student himself. Ben finds comfort in the town and in the restaurant, and these two real-life friends to a fantastic job grounding the film with some nice moments together.

Just when Ben seems on the verge of turning things around, something quite ill-advised happens on the trip, and he loses all support for his new dealership idea. His girlfriend leaves him, his daughter cuts him off, his loan sharks are squeezing him, and he's forced to move into a smaller apartment. And while there are probably very few of us who can identify with Ben's dilemmas, Douglas' work is so strong that he makes us feel every disappointment, just as he shares every victory. The film doesn't focus on any one relationship; instead, it gives more or less equal time to each beyond-screwed-up mess Ben has made with each person. Even with the Eisenberg character, Ben manages to damage their mentor-student connection by hitting on his girlfriend (Olivia Thirlby) during a house party.

It isn't until late in the film that Douglas and co-directors Brian Koppelman (who also wrote the movie) and David Levien reveal just how lonely and often pathetic Ben's life has become. He escapes to the one place he feels the world isn't crashing down around him, and even there, he isn't safe. By the end of the film, we have a much better idea of what Ben is truly about, even if the truth escapes Ben himself. And at a point in his career where we think we know the limits of what Michael Douglas is capable of accomplishing, he continues to surprise and impress us. And from what I'm hearing about the Wall Street sequel, the fun doesn't end here. Solitary Man is one of the most pleasant surprises I've had all year at the movies, and it opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Ondine

There's no getting around the fact that I enjoy seeing the world through director Neil Jordan's eyes. Even with some of his less-than-memorable works, I can always see and appreciate what he's going for and how beautiful the effort is. Strangely enough, the first film of his I ever saw was a very grown-up take on a fairy tale, The Company of Wolves, which told a version of "Red Riding Hood" that no child could ever recover from. He's probably best known for works like The Crying Game, Interview with a Vampire, and Mona Lisa), but I also like lesser-known films like The Butcher Boy and The Good Thief. It's been three years since Jordan has had a film out stateside (2007's Jodie Foster revenge film The Brave One), and he's been missed by me at least.

His most recent effort, Ondine, is also something that starts out as Irish fairy tale and slowly pulls away the fantasy to reveal the painful reality of the situation at hand. Divorced, single father and fisherman Syracuse (Colin Farrell, with romance novel long, shaggy hair) snags a stunning, half-dead woman (Alicja Bachleda) in his net when he's out one morning. Syracuse brings the woman, whose name is Ondine, home with him and nurses her back to health with the help of his wheelchair-bound daughter, Annie (Alison Barry). After some strange occurrences and a little prompting from Ondine, both father and daughter believe they may be in possession of a mythical half-woman/half-seal creature called a selkie. When Ondine goes out on Syracuse's boat and sings in the direction of the sea, his net fills up more than it has in years.

But as the days go on and Ondine and Syracuse begin to fall in deep love, the truth about Ondine's origins becomes clearer and unfortunately more based in the real world. There is a scary-looking guy trolling the small fishing village looking for Ondine, and he may be the selkie's husband (if you believe the myth). There are times when Ondine feels like the perfect love story, with a lovely mystical undercurrent, and there are times when the added flourish feels unnecessary. The stuff with the dark, mysterious figuring looking for Ondine doesn't ever click or hit the right level of menace. Also, there are a few scenes with Syracuse's estranged former wife that fall flat because she is such the stock evil ex (complete with a drinking problem--then again, this does take place in Ireland). And while this film does harbor certain fantasy elements and includes a young child as a lead character, I'm not sure this is the kind of film kids will like or even understand.

All of that said, Ondine is a beautiful movie. The landscapes are lush and inviting, the acting is top notch, and there's something sweet and inviting about the entire film. These aren't usually words you use to describe movies, I realize, but I wish I could do so more often. This is something in which Neil Jordan specializes. I also really enjoyed Farrell play a character like this in a film with such a small scope. He gets more interesting the more intimate the movie gets; go rent In Bruges for proof positive of this. When he plays bigger than life, he loses what makes him engaging. And perhaps for his performance alone, I'd recommend Ondine to go see on a rainy day when you need a little spiritual warmth. This film offers that by the netful. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

OSS 117: Lost in Rio

There isn't much to say about this spoof of '50s and '60s French spy books and films following the adventures of Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath--whose handle is OSS 117--beyond the firm belief that if you enjoyed the previous entry, Cairo, Nest of Spies, you'll probably be equally entertained by Lost in Rio. Actually, you may like it even a little more as Jean Dujardin digs his teeth in a little deeper into the characters absurd racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist behavior. For the most part, I felt this film found its stride a little faster and more satisfyingly than the first film.

As you may have guessed from the title, our hero must travel to Brazil to track down a Nazi war criminal who has endless connections with French collaborators who would rather not have their names released. Bath must join forces with a lovely Mossad agent (Louise Monot), and this unleashes in him a torrent of bad behavior as he attempts to bed her as often as he insults the Jewish people. The director's attention to detail in terms of art direction, music, costumes, camera work, and acting style remains impeccable. Much like the first film there are perhaps a few too many dead spots and jokes that just don't connect, but that gave me time to examine the film on an aesthetic level, and that does count for something. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention again the perfect personality blend that Dujardin bring to this character. He has bits of James Bond, Austin Powers, Jacques Clouseau, and Maxwell Smart, but he brings an insensitivity that those characters were clearly lacking. And it's because of the actor's freakishly broad, sparkling smile that I find myself uncomfortably drawn to his adventures. Not a great work, but something that will probably brighten your day considerably. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Daddy Longlegs

I get aggravated with people who dislike a movie because it makes them sad or because they don't like a particular character who isn't supposed to be fucking likable in the first place. If a sad movie makes you sad, it's doing its job and, therefore, is a good movie (in most cases). I'll admit the character of Lenny (played by newcomer Ronald Bronstein) in Daddy Longlegs is one of the most abrasive human beings ever portrayed on film, but he's not a bad guy at all. His most heinous crime is being irresponsible, which at a certain age and with less responsibilities might be okay. But Lenny is a divorced father of two young boys (played by real-life brothers Sage and Frey Ranaldo), who alternate between worshipping his free spirit and being enraged with his inconsistency. He has a job with irregular hours, and thus is always trying to pass off his kids on neighbors, his girlfriend, or random friends.

The point in the film at which you will either jump on board this portrait of bad New York parenting or abandon ship takes places when Lenny needs his kids to stay asleep a few extra hours so he can cover a shift. He feeds each of them one-third of sleeping pill. The series of events that occurs from this point forward will have you tearing your hair out in a volatile combination of anger and anxiety. But Daddy Longlegs doesn't contain some Hollywood version of bad-dad behavior. Co-writers and -directors Josh and Benny Safdie have concocted a film that looks, acts, and smells like the 1970s, even though I'm fairly certain it's meant to take place in a modern setting. I had no problem seeing a young Al Pacino or Richard Dreyfuss playing Lenny 35 years ago, and I'm not sure either could have played it any better than Bronstein.

In a single scene, the story goes from hilarious to tragic to scary as hell based largely on Bronstein's Ginsu-sharp performance. The man talks like he's on speed, has a twisted logic and excuse for every terrible thing he does, and is protective of his children to a fault except when he's not. This is not a film about plot as much as it is about behavior, and I don't think you're going to see behavior quite as audacious and brazen as you do in Daddy Longlegs. The filmmakers don't even try that hard to dig deep into Lenny's psyche and explore why he is the way he is. It doesn't matter, and we don't care. Yet somehow--and I'm at a loss to explain how--the Safdie's make us care about and root for this maniac. Lenny is that bit of failure in all of us that absolutely will not admit to being a failure. If you admit you're a loser, then the game is lost. Lenny doesn't have much going for him, but he refuses to see himself as a loser, and this fact will drive you batshit crazy watching him in this magnificent movie.

I'm not sure I'd believe you if you told me this movie was scripted. At the very least, the film feels 100 percent improvised, in that it feels lived in, natural, and wholly convincing as a slice of life. The pacing rarely takes time to blink, but that's Lenny in a nutshell. And when the whole thing was finished, I took a deep breath and said, "What the hell was that?" I wasn't confused at all, except to wonder why no one has made a film like this in so long.

Daddy Longlegs opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Directors Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie will be present for audience discussion at all screenings on Friday and Saturday.

The Little Traitor

According to the closing credits of this small number from Israel, The Little Traitor was made in 2007, so I guess it's a minor miracle the film made it to the big screen at all. Based on the book "Panther in the Basement" by Amos Oz and adapted by director Lynn Roth, this film follows the life of a young Jewish boy living in Palestine just after World War II, when the region was still adjusting to the influx of Jews and was occupied by the British to keep the peace. Part of doing so was initiating a curfew that young Proffi (Ido Port) seems to have trouble remembering. Every night is a race to get home before soldiers arrest him for being out too late. One night, that's exactly what happens when the boy is caught by Sgt. Dunlop (Alfred Molina), who takes pity on Proffi and lets him go with a warning and an invitation to visit him at place where the British are headquartered to discuss Hebrew (which Dunlop is attempt to learn) and the Old Testament.

Proffi's parents are members of the Jewish underground (a role the film never quite explains) and as a result Proffi is often left in the dark about late-night goings-on in his own house. But with Dunlop, the exchange of information is free and fun. Since British occupation was something that is despised by both Jews and Arabs at the time, when it is discovered that Proffi has been palling around with a soldier, he is called a traitor and is alienated by his friends and classmates.

I have no way of knowing whether the events or mood established in The Little Traitor are accurate, but that isn't really the issue. What's presented here feels false a lot of the time. Molina is a gifted actor, and it's a real treat to see him underplay something so beautifully. But many of the other actors are quite bad, and I never really took to Port as Proffi. The writing and his performance made Proffi seem much too cut and dry, and terribly false. The movie has noble intentions and certainly opened my eyes to a historical situation I never knew existed. But when characters (in particular, Dunlop) start prophetically speculating on what will happen to the region once the British leave (which they soon did), I can feel director Roth thinking herself quite clever. And although it's never voiced, I never got over the initial creep vibe of this older man and young boy hanging out, even if it was totally harmless.

I certainly didn't hate The Little Traitor; it just commits the crime of being slight and ultimately not very compelling. I'll watch Alfred Molina in pretty much anything; the man is always a treat to watch work. But it doesn't feel like he's trying very hard here, and I was never that lit up by the rest of the story being told here either. Good intentions don't always pave the way for good movies. This film is a classic example of that. The Little Traitor opens today at the Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

 
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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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