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« "Behind the Music: Jennifer Hudson" Scrappers to Premiere at Chicago Underground Film Festival »

Column Fri Jun 25 2010

Knight and Day, Cyrus, Grown Ups, The Killer Inside Me & Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee

Knight and Day

This will not be a long review; there's really no reason. There's no deep, existentialist examination of the human condition going on with Tom Cruise's action-comedy Knight and Day, and that's okay. I actually get a great deal of joy watching Cruise play fast and loose on screen; when he wants to be, he can be a great comic actor. The reason I never took to the Mission: Impossible films like I wanted to (except maybe the third one) is that they took themselves so damn seriously, and they really didn't need to. Knight and Day almost floats off the screen with cottonball weightlessness, but Cruise and his sly grin--and the attitude that fuels that grin--make this film a harmless couple hours spent watching attractive people pretend to get placed in the midst of some dangerous situations and come out the other side smiling and a little bit in love. I probably should have said "Spoiler Alert" right there, because there's no way you could have guessed any of that. Sorry. But please, even when Cruise is shot in this film, it's treated with the urgency of a kid in a Band-Aid commercial. Oopsie!

If there's an actual plot to Knight and Day, I totally missed it. Cruise is being chased down by assassins being led by Peter Sarsgaard because...no, see I knew this, and now I've lost it. I'm not quite sure why they're chasing him. I think there's a battery involved. No, seriously. Cruise meets June Havens (Cameron Diaz) on a plane going from Wichita to Boston, even though she's not supposed to be on the plane. He lovingly hijacks her person in an effort to protect her from the government baddies who clearly won't believe her when she tells them she doesn't know who Cruise's Roy Miller actually is. As much as Cruise's cavalier attitude toward even the most dangerous circumstances is enjoyable, it's also part of my problem with the film. We're never quite sure what we're supposed to be taking as a serious threat and what is a silly distraction.

If any of this set up sounds kinda, sorta, vaguely familiar, that's because the set up is very similar to that of the recent Ashton Kutcher-Katherine Heigl film Killers. And shame on you for knowing that. I get paid to see this shit; what's your excuse? Knight and Day is a whole lot better a movie, but the jet setting and screaming, ditzy female lead elements are uncomfortably similar. Diaz can be a fun addition to a comedy, but her dumb jokes and perpetual blonde-ness (no offense to blondes out there... call me) were really pumping the brakes on an action film that wanted so desperately to really peel out and be a rip-roaring good time. There are a couple of enjoyable action sequences--a car chase during a running of the bulls in Spain comes to mind--but it became mind numbing after a while at how little the usually reliable director, James Mangold (3:10 To Yuma, Walk the Line), seemed to care about this movie making any damn sense. By the time Paul Dano shows up somewhere in the mid-section of the story, I was shaking my head and wondering what the point of all this was. It's not so much that the plot is confusing; I just didn't get what all the fuss was about.

Another truly annoying element to Knight and Day was the cutesy repeated gag of Cruise drugging Diaz so she wouldn't be such a pain in the ass as he attempted to save her. So we get these dream-like sequences of her falling in and out of sleep while crazy action sequences are happening around her. The first time they used this device, I laughed. After that, I could tell the filmmakers thought they had something original on their hands, and they felt compelled to repeat it several times. Thanks, folks.

But the truth is that, despite its many flaws, Knight and Day made me laugh quite a bit, especially in its first hour. Sure, the film craps out by the end, but there is something contained within these walls worth checking out. The film doesn't exactly alter my feelings about how cruddy this summer has been over all, but it doesn't come across as total junk either. I'm split nearly down the middle on this, but I'm recommending it ever so mildly because I want to encourage Cruise to do more films that aim to be fun. He should just try and find slightly better material next time.

Cyrus

Sometimes I love a movie so much that I put off writing a review of it because I'm worried that I won't capture the essence of why I connected with it in the first place. I have seen Cyrus three times since March, and each time I found new and fascinating things about it to enjoy. Cyrus is one of those films I can't imagine people not liking a great deal. Of course, those are unrealistic expectations, but I was so taken with the performances, the visual style, and the way filmmaker brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead) get to the emotional core of these fragile characters.

The film centers on John (John C. Reilly), a single man still wrecked by his divorce seven years earlier. He still maintains a friendly relationship with his ex-wife (Catherine Keener), and she and her soon-to-be-new-husband (the perfectly deadpan Matt Walsh) invite John to a party one evening in the hopes of meeting a woman that might date him. The party sequence is the first of many deliciously awkward sequences that the Duplasses stage and Reilly carries out flawlessly. But somewhere in his drunken stupor he manages to meet the lovely Molly (Marisa Tomei) who finds John's honesty about his defeated state of being refreshing and charming. This would normally be a red flag warning us that something might not be quite right with Molly, but John doesn't care.

After a couple of really great dates, John gets curious why Molly always sneaks out late at night to go home, so he follows her and discovers the biggest surprise of all. Molly has a 21-year-old son named Cyrus (Jonah Hill, with the serial killer close-cropped-hair-and-plaid-shirt combo) who still lives with her and shares a weirdly close--bordering on inappropriate--relationship. John is confused but willing to try and see of this bizarre little trio might actually work. He soon discovers that Cyrus is a master of manipulating his mother with fake night terrors and panic attacks to make sure that all of the attention and love gets directed toward him and not John, who is trapped in a kind of limbo where he wants to get closer to Molly but can't quite bring himself to accuse Cyrus of doing anything wrong.

We live in a world where if a studio had taken control of a film like Cyrus, they would have turned it into something like Step Brothers. But this is a world that the Duplass Brothers created in their own, improv-centric way and brought to Hollywood. And rather than simply write out the feelings and words their characters feel and say, they trusted this highly competent and talented actor to flesh out the characters and let the truth about them rise to the surface. It doesn't feel like improv; it feels something like life. And while you do sometimes spot the camera searching the room for the best moment, that documentary feel only adds to the authenticity.

You really feel how strong this filmmaking technique is when Jonah Hill is on screen. Hill has always been great at popping off one liners and great spontaneous jokes, but what he's doing here is something entirely different, slightly scary (Cyrus is a scary dude), and forwards him so much as an actor that its almost shocking. You actually see Jonah Hill get better as an actor on screen. As for Reilly and Tomei, these days you just expect them both to be well suited to just about any role they tackle, and they do not let us down in Cyrus. I wish we learned a little more about Tomei's thoughts and motivations for treating her son like he's still a child at times, but she makes it believable.

The fascinating aspect to Cyrus is that these three characters are just broken enough that getting to know each other might actually be therapeutic and useful to each other's growth. It actually pained me to watch these potential bonds crumble at one point. And while most films with a similar story might have built to a wild and wacky climactic showdown between John and Cyrus, this film goes in a remarkably different direction that I was not expecting. And while Cyrus has plenty of well-earned laughs, it is these honest, more serious moments that sold me on this film on repeated viewings. I think you are really going to take this film into your heart and love every uncomfortable second watching it. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Cyrus co-writers and -directors Mark and Jay Duplass, go to Ain't It Cool News. While you're at it, check out my exclusive interview with Cyrus stars John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill.

Grown Ups

Last week, in my review of Toy Story 3, I praised the film for successfully maturing and tackling bigger-picture issues as its original core audience got older in the 15 years since the original film. I guess in some obtuse way, that's what Adam Sandler and his pals are doing with Grown Ups, which weirdly enough comes 15 years after Sandler's first starring role in Billy Madison, a film about a young adult who acts like a kid is forced to go back to primary school. Grown Ups is about a group of adults remembering what it's like to be kids again. It's also a prime example of a whole lot of people (some talented) trying as hard as they possibly can to squeeze out only a handful of laughs. It's not a total bust as a comedy, but when the laughs are absent, the film can be kinda deadly dull.

There were times when Sandler and his old "Saturday Night Live" pals were all funny in their own ways. Chris Rock is one of the funniest men in the world, but you'd never know it from his film career. (I exclude Good Hair from his filmography because it's a documentary, and a very good one at that.) David Spade and Rob Schneider never really got any better in movies than they were on SNL. Sandler rocketed to superstardom as a comic and sometimes-dramatic thespian. The fifth player in Grown Ups is Kevin James, a stand-up comic that had a long-running sitcom, and between Hitch and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, has had a mildly successful film career by pairing with good co-stars. (Of course, he was also in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which I will also exclude because that was a documentary as well.) These five men play older versions of the players on a school basketball team that had a championship season many years earlier. When their coach dies, the five men and their families go back to the town where they grew up to attend the funeral and spend the weekend rediscovering each other.

The premise is thin to begin with, yes, but one of the many things that makes the film so limp is that the dialogue is just a series of set ups and punchlines--some of it is funny, but saddled with a PG-13 rating, there's only so much these guys can say, especially Rock. But Grown Ups' worst crime is being oppressively sentimental. Just when the guys get into a particularly strong comic groove, writers Sandler and former SNL writer Fred Wolf, and director Dennis Dugan (Chuck & Larry, The Benchwarmers, You Don't Mess with the Zohan) lapse into a diabetic coma of feel-good bullshit. I haven't seen this many couples fix all of their problems in a weekend since last year's Couples Retreat. Grown Ups is a better film, sure, but not by much.

And there are Oscar nominees in this film, which boggles the mind. Salma Hayek and Maria Bello play the hapless wives of Sandler and James, respectively, while a very pregnant Mya Rudolph plays Rock's working spouse to his house husband. Perhaps the greatest insult to women the film could deal is that none of the female characters in this movie are given a single funny line. They try, but the material just isn't strong; worse, it's like an afterthought.

There's really no reason for me to talk about the individual characters in Grown Ups, since the five leads are just variations of each other, as are the wives, as are the kids. And this isn't a movie about developing or distinguishing characters. It's about obvious jokes, sap, and a message about maturity that would choke Dr. Phil. I've seen worse movies this year--hell, I've seen worse movies in the last week--but this could have been a solid, R-rated adult comedy about that youthful spirit we leave behind when we grow older. Sadly, Grown Ups is exactly what you think it will be. Prepare to be disappointed, with light entertainment sprinkles.

The Killer Inside Me

It's been far too long since Hollywood has attempted a film adaptation of the seedy crime novels of the late, great Jim Thompson (The Getaway; After Dark, My Sweet; The Grifters). And I love the fact that the prolific British director Michael Winterbottom (24 Hour Party People, A Mighty Heart, Jude), a filmmaker who goes out of his way not to repeat himself, should be the one bring to hopefully revive Thompson and bring his sexually deviant and especially violent works back to the big screen with The Killer Inside Me. Winterbottom works so quickly that his last two films--The Shock Doctrine and Summer in Genoa--never even got a proper distribution stateside, despite them both being quite good.

Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Oceans trilogy) plays clean-cut West Texas sheriff Lou Ford, a man whose future seems mapped out quite nicely. He's got a beautiful girlfriend (Kate Hudson), a good job, and a dark side that rarely surfaces unless he's about to murder someone. He's sent out on a call to run a local prostitute (Jessica Alba) out of town, but ends up sleeping with her and falling into a passionate and sadistic relationship with the woman (there's a lot of brutal spanking involved--a habit he picked up as a child). When the powerful father (Ned Beatty) of a man also seeing the prostitute "hires" Ford to break up their relationship, the sheriff stages what appears to be a truly awful double homicide--the son beat the hooker nearly to death, but before she died, she shot him. If you can make it through that sequence, you can make it through just about anything; Affleck shows us a scary, powerful side to his acting abilities that honestly scared me.

Of course, there is no such thing as the perfect crime and although Ford is one of those in charge of the murder investigation, there are loose ends that could implicate him. And thus begins the slow unraveling of our anti-hero. I'm a big fan of films that somehow manage to make us hope the villain doesn't get away with his crime, especially a sociopath like the good sheriff. When he's not killing people, Ford seems like a low-key, charming man, so it's easy for suspicion to roll off of him for a time. Winterbottom does a tremendous job letting the plot burn slow and the tension rise ever so gradually. The more we learn about his upbringing, and the more we realize how truly in love he was with the prostitute, the more we kind of feel for the guy to a point. To say The Killer Inside Me is a complicated work is an understatement, but it's also completely accurate. The film is dark, atmospheric and perfectly acted. It's also shockingly violent, perverse, and has a character at its center that is without a moral compass. These are all pluses in my book, and if you don't mind a little pain with your meal, you'll probably find the film to be pretty damn good. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee

Most of what I knew about the latest film from UK master director Shane Meadows (Twenty Four Seven, Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, This is England) was that it starred Paddy Considine and that the great band Arctic Monkeys made an appearance. Sold. I knew nothing about plot or the fake documentary style of the film. Imagine if This Is Spinal Tap were about the band's roadies instead of the musicians, and you might get something of a sense of what Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee provides us. Considine (In America, Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum) plays the roadie in question, named Le Donk, a man who has never had much go right in his life for reasons that are almost entirely his fault. Not long before director Meadows (playing himself) meets up with Le Donk to follow his life as he works backstage at a music festival, he has lost probably the best thing in his life, his pregnant girlfriend (Olivia Colman, also from Hot Fuzz), who is now living with another man.

Le Donk's constant companion is a pudgy, would-be rapper named Scor-Zay-Zee (pronounced in a remarkably similar way to the Italian-American director of Goodfellas and Raging Bull), who seems about as useless as you might expect a British guy named after the director of Mean Streets and The Gangs of New York might be. I couldn't swear to it, but every line of dialogue in this film feels improvised, and it's all a scream. Considine has long been a tremendous dramatic actor, but in recent years, he's dabbled in comedy with exciting results. He creates such a complete character out of a man with few redeeming qualities that it's like watching the miracle of birth, with sometimes equally painful results. The awkward situations Le Donk finds himself in are difficult to watch at times, and I mean that as a compliment.

The film's true comic inspiration comes when the pair get to the festival to help set up the stage and interact with Arctic Monkeys. What's even more remarkable is that Scor-Zay-Zee (played by newcomer Dean Palinczuk) actually has some talent as a lyricist and performer. The band members spot him free-styling on stage and offer him (with Le Donk on keyboards and additional hilarious vocal hooks) a one-song slot just before the band goes on. We suspect that since Le Donk's ex- is about to give birth to his child any minute and that this might complicate things, but aside from this slightly predictable plot point, the film feels spontaneous, loose, and blessedly free of convention. The true test of how much fun this film is to watch is that I would have gladly watched another movie featuring just one of the many characters featured in Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee; they are all fun to watch, whether they are squirming in a tense moment or just being drunk and stupid.

Although Meadows is no stranger to some humor in his films, it's nice to see him cut loose and let humor be the driving force the way it is here. And I should add that the director gives himself a fair number of funny lines as well, as he comments on Le Donk's sometimes atrocious behavior. My guess is that if you want to see this film, your only chance will be IFC On Demand or on DVD, since it's getting a micro-theatrical release. However if you can find it, do so. This is a oddly charming look at two guys with a dream and only one of them has the talent to possibly see it through. But it's the failure that's the more interesting creature to observe. It's a truly enjoyable work, and lucky for those of us in Chicago, Le Donk and Scor-Zay-Zee is getting a limited, one-week run beginning today at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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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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