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Column Fri Jul 30 2010

Dinner for Schmucks, Charlie St. Cloud, Best Worst Movie, & Cropsey

Hey, everyone. Before we dive into this week's releases I wanted to tell you about something so stupendous, so magnificent, happening in Chicagoland in a couple weeks, that any true movie lover...hell, any true Chicagoan...would be a fool to miss. And to top it all off, the event in question is free.

On Friday, August 13, the good folks of the Alamo Drafthouse's 2010 Rolling Roadshow (co-sponsored by Levi's brand) have organized a screening of the classic John Landis-directed The Blues Brothers to take place in the only place it truly could--just outside the walls of the Old Joliet Prison--from where "Joliet" Jake Blues (John Belushi) is released at the beginning of the film. The address is 1125 Collins Street, Joliet, IL. Make it your mission from God to make it to this once-in-a-lifetime event. Start time appears to be 8pm. Don't be late. And did I mention, the screening is free? Well, it is.

For those of you not familiar with the Rolling Roadshow, it's this wonderful traveling gift to cinema, during which specific locations across the nation are paired with films that were shot or set in that city. Robocop screens in Detroit; The Godfather, Part II screens on the rooftops near New York's Little Italy; the first three Rocky movies screen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And the list goes on. These are 35mm outdoor screenings on a huge screen.

For all the details on the screening, go to the Rolling Roadshow's site. Specifics on attendance and what you might need to bring will be added soon. And the organizers are asking that everyone who wants to attend to RSVP via the event's Facebook page. I simply can't imagine anyone in a 500-mile radius of the Joliet Prison even thinking about missing this historic event. I'll see you there, true believers.

Dinner for Schmucks

After being in a string of high-profile uproariously funny comedies since 2004's Anchorman (including The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Role Models, and I Love You Man, all of which made me pee my pants from laughing so hard), Rudd has made a film that maybe doesn't feature the gut-twisting belly laughs of old, but still had me giggling non-stop for the better part of two hours. The feat probably would not have been possible without a handful of laser-sharp comedic performances led by Steve Carell (Rudd's Anchorman and Virgin co-star), who is trying harder than any other human being would have to make us laugh, with mostly positive results.

Dinner for Schmucks is a sugar-coated remake of The Dinner Game, one of darkest, nastiest French comedies ever made. In the original, the character played by Rudd is a true master in the art of being an asshole. In Schmucks, Rudd's Tim is, well, quite Ruddian. He's a genuinely nice guy, who has a lovely girlfriend (Stephanie Szostak) he thinks is too good for him. He's living beyond his means and is fighting at his investment firm to climb the corporate ladder and get a significant pay raise. When opportunity knocks thanks to a key presentation made to his boss (Star Trek's Bruce Greenwood), Tim is invited to a dinner at the boss' house, during which each guest brings one remarkable idiot (mimes are not allowed--too cliche). The man who brings the best moron is the winner. Tim begrudgingly agrees to participate and fortunately runs into Barry (Carell), an IRS auditor whose hobby is constructing dioramas of famous paintings or scenes in history using costumed dead mice as the characters. Watching Barry construct these results in some the film's most incredible moments, seriously. And bringing him to this dinner seems like a sure-fire win for Tim.

Through a series of overloaded contrivances, Tim and Barry end up spending a couple days together during some of Tim's most important life turning points. There are troubles with the girlfriend; he's having trouble landing an important client; and a woman he slept with three years earlier is still stalking him. Let's focus on that plot point, if we may. I'm a big, big fan of British comic actress Lucy Punch, who plays the stalkerish one-night-stand Darla, but watching her play a character so ridiculous took me right out of the movie at light speed. Those scenes simply don't work. Schmucks is sparingly peppered with moments like that, and the cumulative effect is that it waters down what could have been a much better film. I still liked what I saw, but there are two or three key sequences where you can feel the life and fun draining from the screen.

Not that there's any point in assigning blame for this shortfall, but not a single person in this movie isn't giving it their all, including the remarkable Jemaine Clement as the self-obsessed artist Kieran. Words cannot describe how great this man is in this movie, and the moments with him and Carell are my favorite in the film. Also quite good is Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) as Barry's co-worker, the man who stole his wife, and a master of mind control (which is different than brain control, I learned from this movie). I have a sneaking suspicion that if you just leave Zach alone in a room, funny things will happen. That's kind of what this is. And when the film does finally roll around the the actual dinner, the laughs are almost non-stop. The final 30 minutes or so of Dinner for Schmucks make a lot of the film's ills a whole lot easier to handle.

Back to that blame thing, if I may. The screenplay from David Guion and Michael Handelman (co-writers on the terrible Zach Braff movie The Ex) is weak; there's no getting around that. You can almost feel director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers trilogy and the first two Meet the Parents movies) taking the skeleton story of said weak script, throwing it to the actors, and saying, "Do something with that." And for the most part, they rise to the occasion. As much as you might assume Rudd takes on the straight man role in Schmucks, that's not exactly the case. His reactions to Carell and the other fools that cross his path are as much a part of what makes us laugh as the more outward elements of humor. They are few actors that can pull that off as convincingly as Rudd, and that's probably why he's so beloved. Amen.

Dinner for Schmucks is far from the funniest movie of the summer (I may have seen that the same day I went to the Schmucks screening; more on that later in the month), but it has enough to keep a smile on your face for the duration, and it's enough of a satisfying placeholder for Rudd fans until the end of the year when we find out what he does in his collaboration with James L. Brooks and Jack Nicholson in Everything You've Got.

In the next day or so, look for my exclusive interview with Dinner for Schmucks star Paul Rudd at Ain't It Cool News.

Charlie St. Cloud

In a rare moment (mark your calendars), I'm at a loss for what to say about this movie. But here's my valiant attempt to walk you through my thoughts. There's nothing inherently evil or bad about Charlie St. Cloud, a film that really would like you to believe it's about grieving, loss, and moving on. When sailing enthusiast Charlie (Zac Effron) loses his little brother Sam (Charlie Tahan) to a drunk driver in a car accident, he goes into a deep depression and perhaps even a slightly delusional state for several years. Just before Sam's death, the brothers made a pact to meet every night at sundown to practice baseball. And even after the crash, Charlie goes to their designated spot religiously and works on pitching with a vision of Sam that can apparently throw the ball back. They talk, argue, go over the day's events, and the "relationship" keeps Charlie from going to college, getting involved with women, or moving on with his life in any way. It's always just a little bit sadder when bad things happen to cute people.

When Tess (Amanda Crew), a high school classmate of Charlie's, returns to their Pacific Northwest home as a world-class sailor preparing to go solo around the world, she's surprised to find Charlie still around and still adorable. He barely remembers her, but the two strike up a friendship on the eve of her journey. During one particularly nasty storm in the area, Tess takes her boat out to test how it holds up in bad weather. Several hours later, she lands up at Charlie's doorstep, bleeding from the head and a fuzzy memory of what happened. And this is where the movie starts to get a little ridiculous. I'm not going to spoil any surprises here, but Charlie St. Cloud goes from sweet, sentimental story of a young man grieving for his lost sibling to something that I'm not even sure makes sense. Every turn this movie gives us is telegraphed by supporting players like Kim Basinger as Charlie's mom, Ray Liotta as the ambulance technician who saved Charlie's life after the car crash, and Donal Logue as Tess' trainer.

Director Burr Steers worked with Effron in last year's 17 Again, and he also did the vastly superior Igby Goes Down, and this one feels like further evidence that the guy is slipping further down the cotton candy trail to Sticky Sweet Land. Although this movie does include a love scene (sort of) and a few bad words, Charlie St. Cloud couldn't be more sanitized and predictable. Despite the slightly unconventional nature of the third act, the film still manages to wrap things up exactly how you'd expect. I'll admit, I've always seen potential in Effron as an actor, especially after seeing Me and Orson Welles last year. But he's got to stop playing it safe if he wants to excel as an actor. It's that simple. I get that breaking free of the Disney Channel mold is tough, but at some point Effron will have to decide whether he more intent on holding onto his younger fans or making new ones who appreciate stronger acting roles down the road. My guess is that the guy can probably keep both, and still make decent movie. But Charlie St. Cloud is largely disposable, forgettable drivel.

Best Worst Movie

I've seen hundreds upon hundreds of making-of documentaries or docs about the impact a historic film has had on culture, but I have never seen a movie quite like Best Worst Movie. This festival-circuit favorite for more than a year is actually two movies: one is a making-of feature concerning the 1989 cult phenomenon known as Troll 2, a film that is neither a proper sequel to Troll nor a film that features any trolls (but it has lots and lots of goblins). The other part of the film is more difficult to qualify, but it shows how that films' resurgence at midnight shows (at places such as the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin and the Music Box Theatre in Chicago--both of which are featured in the Best Worst Movie) has changed the lives of the people who acted in and made the film originally.

I'll admit, I never held a deep fascination with Troll 2 until shortly before this documentary surfaced, but there are those who know and recite its every line and worship the non-sensical insanity that it embodies. They also willingly cringe at some of the worst acting from a troupe of Utah actors that star in the movie, including Best Worst Movie director Michael Paul Stephenson (who plays young Joshua in Troll 2). The making-of portion of the film is pretty great, especially when the focus falls on Italian director and co-writer Claudio Fragasso, who refuses to see anything but the greatness in his work. And you know what? Good for him. The man is an artist, and he's proud of what he's accomplished even if the rest of the world thinks its godawful. But the real star of the both films is George Hardy (who played Michael in Troll 2), a dentist with a magnetic personality and the ability to laugh at himself and the one film he ever made in a way that makes you love him even more. Hardy and Stephenson seek out all of the main cast member for a big reunion screening, and what they find is the heart and soul of the movie.

Best Worst Movie is also the most honest and somewhat sobering look at what happens when such actors do the convention circuit and hit a town where they are simply not known (an appearance at a huge UK Con is downright depressing). Whenever I go to a con and see an actor or noted figure sitting alone at a booth, sometimes for hours, I try to imagine what that feels like to them. This film captures those moments of rejection like poetry. But mostly, this movie is about fun. It takes a look at the practice of falling in love with terrible, but highly watchable movies, and it profiles fans and filmmakers who breathe life back into these masterpieces of awful. And for the record, Best Worst Movie is not so bad it's good; it's just plain good. In fact, it's exceptional.

The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Filmmakers Michael Paul Stephenson and George Hardy will be appearing at the 9:45pm showings of Best Worst Movie on Friday and Saturday, after which audience members can stay for a special midnight screening of Troll 2.

Cropsey

A film festival circuit favorite for most of the last year, this excellent true-crime doc actually managed to scare me one or two times while filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman search the woods of Staten Island (the borough that time forgot) for clues to the mystery of a handful of mostly special needs children gone missing over the decades near an abandoned mental hospital. The film examines the elements that make up an urban myth about a child-kidnapping creepy old guy, and turn the myth into a reality that got him locked up for decades with absolutely nothing but circumstantial evidence and unreliable witnesses.

Believe me when I say I'm not trying to fool you into seeing yet another faux horror documentary, like The Blair Witch Project, The Last Broadcast, Paranormal Activity, or the upcoming release The Last Exorcism (all fine films in their own right). No, Cropsey is a 100 percent legit documentary that is structured like a gripping exposé on fear mongering in a closed-minded community. Its scares are genuine, even if they occur almost accidentally.

The entire film is genuinely creepy and disturbing, especially the unsubstantiated belief that former mental patients still roam the woods and live in the underground catacombs beneath the hospital, or that a seemingly limitless number of Satanists live in Staten Island. (Actually, looking at all the track suits in play here, I could believe the latter.) The bottom line on Cropsey is that it works as both a mystery that can never be solved and a profile of a community shaped by its own collective fears. And the cast of characters is so colorful and ridiculous that you couldn't cast actors to play them any better than they play themselves. This is a great little movie, which is slowly making its way across the country and is now available nationwide on Video-On-Demand until August 12 through most major operators. It opens Monday at the Music Box Theatre and runs through Thursday.

 
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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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