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Column Fri Aug 20 2010

The Switch, Nanny McPhee Returns, Animal Kingdom, Lottery Ticket, Mao's Last Dancer, The Duel & Behind the Burly Q

The Switch

Do you know how awful the new Jason Bateman-Jennifer Aniston comedy is? It's so awful that even the official synopsis is a lie. Here's how it reads: "An unmarried 40-year-old woman turns to a turkey baster in order to become pregnant. Seven years later, she reunites with her best friend, who has been living with a secret: he replaced her preferred sperm sample with his own." And, no, the lie is not that Aniston is actually 41 (more like 41 and a half). The lie comes (pardon the pun) in the second sentence. Bateman's character Wally is not "living with a secret" because he was so drunk when the titular switch was made that he didn't remember doing it until a combination of meeting Kassie's (Aniston) son and his co-worker (Jeff Goldblum) reminding him of some drunken mumblings said the night of the seed swapping triggers the memory. Got it? Now, please stop the lies.

But none of this matters. You know why? Because this movie is fucking awful, and I don't know if there's one thing I can point to to put the blame on. Initially, I wanted to lay blame at the feet of screenwriter Allan Loeb, but he's usually a pretty reliable scribe with such works as Things We Lost in the Fire, 21, and the upcoming Wall Street sequel, which I'm hearing strong things about. And then there's the temptation to blame co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (who also made Blades of Glory). That might be closer to pointing the finger in the right direction, until I look at the cast, all of whom should have known better. Come on, people. This is a comedy in which sperm is the key focal point. You couldn't have guessed this might not have turned out strong, really?

I realize that Bateman is playing a character riddled with anxieties, phobias, and unpleasant personality traits, but I'm guessing that the real reason he looks so miserable for the duration of The Switch is because he agreed to be in it...or he lost a bet and has to be in it. Either way... I will say that Aniston does a better job convincing me she actually wanted to make this movie. But for Christ's sake, woman, does it really take someone with PhD to figure out how a movie in which a man and a woman are best friends is going to end. We all saw that Rob Reiner film where the old lady wants what she's having; it's no mystery. And we're supposed to buy that the reason Wally doesn't tell Kassie that he wants to be the father of her baby (rather than an anonymous donor) or that he loves her is because he's too rattled a human being to do so. Give me a sideways fucking break. How many times do we have to see this scenario before people rise up and take back the romantic sperm comedy genre?

Coming out of this film slightly less scathed is Patrick Wilson as the donor, who actually turns out to be the perfect guy in terms of looks, build, and alpha-male tendencies. Wilson hasn't done much comedy, but after seeing him in a yet-to-be-released Barry Munday, it's clear the guy has a gift for making people laugh. He's not given much to work with here, but he pulls out something amusing nevertheless. Also in a few solid scenes is Jeff Goldblum, regretfully underused in The Switch, but the man still has it. He has a way of delivering a line that makes me crack up every time. Wait, here's a menu for a Chinese restaurant, Goldblum; read it. Yep, still funny. No faring too well is Juliette Lewis playing Aniston's weirdly ordinary best friend/sidekick. You know the one I mean--she dishes out advice, leads no real life of her own, and supports her friend no matter how stupid her decisions may be. In most romantic comedies, the best friend often finds time to threaten the male lead's life if she breaks her friend's heart. I've never seen Lewis be less interesting than she is in this film. You have to really try to make that woman dull. Mission: Accomplished, idiots.

Every minute of this film feels like it has grabbed you by the neck and is dragging you to its inevitable conclusion. But the biggest problem is that pretty much every single character--from Bateman and Aniston to newcomer Thomas Robinson, who has the great misfortune to play their demon seed--is varying degrees of unlikable. You can't have much of a romance or comedy without letting the audience enjoy the company of at least one of the main characters. As a result, much like the present Jason Bateman left in a sample cup, this movie is a big load.

Nanny McPhee Returns

I have very few memories of the original 2005 version of Nanny McPhee, other than it starred Colin Firth, Kelly McDonald, and Emma Thompson as the magical nanny. I seem to recall relatively pleasant memories of the experience, and thought it was a nice one-off project for Thompson to dabble in between Harry Potter movies and An Education or the recent Brideshead Revisited. But for reasons I can't quite figure out, Thompson has returned to the roll of the witch-like tamer of children in Nanny McPhee Returns, set during World War II and featuring fewer children than the first film but just as many problems.

This time around, the household in question is a country farm being led by Isabel (Maggie Gyllenhaal), whose husband (the seen mostly in flashback Ewan McGregor) is off to war, leaving her to raise three young children and run a farm with almost no money. Her husband's brother (Rhys Ifans) has been pestering Isabel to sell the farm so he can get half the cash to pay off his debts, but she refuses without hearing from her husband on the matter. And while her kids are fairly well behaved, when their rich cousins drop in and clearly loathe the accommodations, fighting and bad behavior soon follow. Without much warning or prompting, Nanny McPhee arrives to teach the children her five valuable lessons and set them down the path to good behavior.

Borrowing her supporting cast of adult actors from the Potter films (including Ifans who appears in the final two-part installment, Maggie Smith, and Ralph Fiennes), screenwriter Thompson and director Susanna White have worked out a likable enough story, but the dramatic elements seem somewhat forced and the villainous uncle subplot is just plain unneeded. All of the performances seem wildly overplayed, which I've come to expect from films aimed at children, but that doesn't make me enjoy the experience any more. Thompson brings some restraint to her role, as she did the first time around, but here she's almost a secondary force in a movie loaded with not-so-special effects, including synchronized pig swimming and flying barley. Hold me back.

Nanny McPhee Returns is such a slight effort that you almost feel bad picking on it. The child actors are pretty solid when they aren't acting like brats, and probably making the most of his cameo is Fiennes (as the head of the British War Office), who manages effectively to convey menace and caring in only what probably amounts to three or four minutes of screen time. Oh, he's good. Nanny McPhee Returns passes by fairly quickly and painlessly, but I suspect that in a matter of days, I will have completely forgotten the experience of watching it much like I did the first time around with the hideous caretaker. I'm not sure if that's a good or bad review, so I'm guessing I'm right up the middle. If you enjoyed in any small way the first film, you'll probably feel similar pangs while watching this one. That's the best I can do.

Animal Kingdom

Going too deep into the plot of this latest in a mini-wave of Australian-produced crime dramas to hit our shores would be missing the point. The crimes themselves and whether the criminals are caught or not isn't really the point. While watching Animal Kingdom, from establish writer and first-time director David Michod, what you are actually witnessing are animals trapped in a corner, still very much wanting to get out alive and more than willing to sacrifice one of their own to take their escape. For its first half hour or so, the film cleverly maneuvers its way around a criminal family--three brothers and one of their best friends, one of whom is being pursued by a faction of rouge detectives who would prefer to blast him dead than arrest him and deal with the paperwork. There's a particular, unbelievable scene that makes that abundantly clear.

But into this hornet's nest arrives the brother's young nephew J (James Frecheville), who finds his mother dead of an overdose at the beginning of the film, and gets immediately sucked into the toxic mess that is his extended family. While it appears his grandmother, Smurf (the devilish Jacki Weaver) is looking out for the boy, the film's third act does a shockingly unexpected job of setting the record straight on who rules this collection of miscreants. The true shining light in J's life--his one hope for salvation and survival--is a detective named Nathan (Guy Pearce), who may be the only decent guy in Animal Kingdom. But even Nathan wants something from J that he may not be capable of delivering. Animal Kingdom isn't so much about twist and turns (although it certainly has its share), but it's more about how these characters react to unspeakable pressure in a world that is rotten to the core with deceit and corruption.

Much like the other exceptional Australian crime drama of late, The Square (which actually features some of the same actors), this film creeps into your brain, dirties it up a bit, and dares you to come in and clean up the mess. The stakes seems higher, both with the film's story and with the nature of the film itself. Watching Animal Kingdom felt like I was discovering a truly great writer-director in Michod, who has a bunch of great movies in him just itching to get out. I hope I'm right because his first out of the gate is a staggering accomplishment. Find this movie near you and let the worshipping begin. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michod, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Lottery Ticket

How do you even review what Ice Cube so aptly referred to as "'hood comedies" anymore? The formula was written ages ago, sometimes it works, but most times it doesn't. Ice Cube himself (who produced Lottery Ticket and makes a brief appearance) perfected the genre to a degree with the first Friday movie and the two Barbershop films. But for the most part, the films reinforce stereotypes and rely on performances and a script that play up everything to the 17th power, and haven't got a clue what the word subtle means. Unfortunately, Lottery Ticket doesn't advance the cause, despite its attempts to emblazon its message of being responsible with money and giving back to the community onto the brains of the audience.

The story is in the trailer, assuming you've seen it. Young Kevin (Bow Wow) and his grandmother (Loretta Devine) win the big lottery worth $370 million. Despite attempts to keep the win a secret until they can collect their winning after the long July 4 weekend, pretty soon the ghetto grapevine does its magic and the whole neighborhood ends up at Kevin's door looking for a piece. I'm not exactly sure what everyone wants, since they don't actually have any money yet, but a few people want to steal the ticket, while other shady types want...see, again, I'm not really sure what everybody wants. There are some pretty girls who wouldn't look Kevin's way who now want him to get them pregnant (that scene is so uncomfortable, I could barely watch), and there's a preacher who wants a new church--and a new wife to go with it.

With appearances by Brandon T. Jackson (probably the best thing in the movie), Terry Crews, Charlie Murphy, Mike Epps, and Keith David, I suppose there was a shot Lottery Ticket could have been something better. But no one here (especially not director Erik White) is trying very hard to impress anybody. Maybe as Tyler Perry movies continue to grow in popularity, 'hood comedies will be a thing of the past, and that wouldn't be the best thing. If they do make a comeback, I hope some young, inventive writer-director tries to put one together with laughs that are earned and are more than just people clowning around. There's room in this world for another movie as good as Barbershop, and I hope we see that film soon.

To read my exclusive interview with Lottery Ticket producer and co-star Ice Cube, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Mao's Last Dancer

The latest film from director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies, Breaker Morant) is this strange and largely effective work about a small corner of the world's dance world that became the focal point of American-Chinese relations for a short, tense period. Mao's Last Dancer is the true life story of Li Cunxin (played as an adult by newcomer Chi Cao), who was taken from his peasant home as a child (Joan Chen plays his mother) and put into an elite ballet school where he eventually became the nation's top male dancer. When a group of visiting American dancers and company leaders visits China to guest teach, the head of the Houston Ballet Theater, Ben Stevenson (Bruce Greenwood), is impressed with Li's talent, and eventually he is able to arrange for Li to make it to Houston to perform under his guidance.

Mao's Last Dancer does a decent job capturing Li's torn allegiance between his Communist teachings and American freedoms that tempt him on a daily basis, as does one particular American girl Elizabeth (Amanda Schull), a fellow dancer who Li falls in love with and decides he wants to defect to America to marry. His planned defection sets off a firestorm of activity on both sides of the political spectrum. Kyle MacLachlan plays Li's immigration lawyer. And while many films might have ended when Li's defection drama is resolved, this movie wisely shows us the price he and his family back home pay for his actions.

And while the inherent drama that Li's story gives the movie, the film's most impressive and breathtaking moments are the handful of beautifully choreographed (by the renowned Graeme Murphy) dance numbers. Since Chi Cao is a talented dancer in real life (for the Birmingham Royal Ballet) and his acting isn't half bad either, he does a wonderful job in the tastefully staged recitals. They are the highlight of Mao's Last Dancer, and I can't imagine ballet enthusiasts not getting a huge thrill seeing these numbers on the big screen. There are a few corny moments in the film, and Greenwood's portrayal of the obviously gay Stevenson borders on comedic sometimes (which is not to say it's not 100 percent accurate), I was largely on board with this historical document that deals with the severe cost of living out your dream. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Duel

I'm not as familiar with Anton Chekhov's The Duel as I am some of his other works, but all of the elements are there: angsty men pining over women they love or don't love, class struggles, substance abuse, death or the threat of death, and a setting that screams isolation. Russian director Dover Kosashvili (Late Marriage) has assembled a cast of lesser-known (at least by name) British actors to lead the charge into his adaptation of The Duel, and the results are rather splendid. The success of this tale rests largely on the shoulders of Andrew Scott's maddening portrayal of Laevsky, a drunken loafer of a man whom his friends are rather protective of, although they are forgetting why as the days pass. The film's secret weapon is Fiona Glascott as Nadia, a luscious woman, married to a dying older man and having affairs in every direction with every layer of the social strata. Tossed into the mix are family members, military types, scientists, and acquaintances, all of whom have an opinion on the couple individually and as a pair.

All things lead up to a pistol duel between Laevsky and the zoologist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a man who takes it upon himself not to fight for his or another's honor, but simply in the name of common decency, which he believes Laevsky stands against. From an adaptation by Mary Bing, director Kosashvili provides a simple but still rich and delicious staging of the work. There isn't a false note among the cast members. No one overplays their part, and yet there's still the slightest sense of playing to the back rows so as not to lose the feeling of the stage. Like much Chekhov, The Duel is front loaded with narcissists that we love to hate, and there's plenty of humor to keep us from choking on the pomposity. I enjoyed the experience of watching this translation so much that I'd like to see the director continue to do more Chekhov, in the same way Kenneth Brannagh attempted to make filmed version of every Shakespeare play. Either way, I can't wait to see what Kosashvili does next, because this film certainly opens up the possibilities in fascinating way. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Behind the Burly Q

This playful and extremely thorough documentary from director Leslie Zemeckis (daughter of Chicago native Robert) covers the Golden Age of burlesque and gives the most detailed account of the era and the practice that I've ever seen. Naturally, the bulk of the film is devoted to the beauties that took off most or all of their clothes as part of their often-complex routines, but Zemeckis doesn't let us forget the countless musicians, comedians (including Abbott and Costello), and behind-the-scenes participants who made up an entire day's entertainment. There are countless interviews with one-time performers, and every once and a while a name pops out that I recognize, such as Blaze Starr, Sally Rand, Gypsy Rose Lee, or Tempest Storm. It's actually kind of remarkable how many of these great artists are still around and were willing to go on camera (although Blaze only did phone interviews). What also floored me was the bevy of archival photos and footage that was available, every bit of which enhances this previously dark, but highly popular, corner of American entertainment.

Behind the Burly Q is a celebration of natural bodies and curves, as one would expect. But it's also a great showcase for artistry, choreography, unforgettable costumes, and freakish talent (how do they get those tassles to twirl in opposite directions?) There are grudges between performers that continue to this day, there are tales of mobsters in New York, Chicago, and other towns that would make you nervous but also might surprise you (the gangsters would not let the dancers go home with customers). But more than anything, I loved the stories from the ladies, who still have a sparkle in their eye when they remember a time when they were celebrities in certain circles and were making more money than they could count. Still, one of the best storytellers in the film is Alan Alda, whose father worked the burlesque circuit (not as a performer, obviously) and was practically raised backstage at certain burlesque joints. Not all of the stories are happy ones, and Zemeckis certainly doesn't shy away from the downside of the business or the fall of certain performers. The story she unveils in her fantastic documentary is complete, honest, and downright provocative at times.

Behind the Burly Q is being presented in collaboration with Chicago's burlesque festival Superstars of Burlesque, and is open for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Leslie Zemeckis will be present for audience discussions at the Friday 8:15pm showing and the Saturday 7:45pm. Friday's discussion will be moderated by Barbara Scharres, the Film Center's Director of Programming, Saturday's discussion will be moderated by yours truly.

 
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