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Column Fri Oct 08 2010

Stone, Secretariat, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Life As We Know It & I Spit on Your Grave

46th Chicago International Film Festival Preview

By the time you read this, the 46th Chicago International Film Festival will have just kicked off with the star-studded premiere of Stone, starring Edward Norton, who was scheduled to attend the Opening Night screening. My review of the film is below. I have to admit, I'm impressed more than I usually am with some of the offerings the festival has this year, including the Closing Night film, director John Madden's The Debt, starring Helen Mirren and Sam Worthington; the Festival Centerpiece, Danny (Slumdog Millionaire) Boyle's latest 127 Hours, starring James Franco, about a mountain climber who must cut his own arm off to escape certain death after having a boulder fall on the appendage; Darren Aronofsky's already-celebrated Black Swan; director Tony Goldwyn's well-constructed Conviction, starring Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell (expect my review next week); Doug Liman's Fair Game, starring Naomi Watts in the story of former CIA operative Valerie Plame; the creepy and exquisite South Korean film The Housemaid; and the lovely story of bored teens on a Friday night, The Myth of the American Sleepover.

Mirren again pops up alongside Bruce Willis in RED and in director Julie (Across the Universe) Taymor's The Tempest; the tense and violent Australian revenge thriller Red Hill; Stephen Frears' latest dark sex comedy Tamara Drewe; one of the greatest music docs ever made, Thunder Soul, about members of a high school funk band reuniting after decades of not playing together; director David Schwimmer's take on internet sex predators, Trust, starring Clive Owen (not as the predator); the Mexican film about a family of cannibals, We Are What We Are; and late additions to the schedule, Clint Eastwood's Hereafter and John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole, starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. And the list goes on and on.

Perhaps better than most other high-profile film festival in North America, CIFF asks that its audience members take a chance on film and filmmakers they have never heard of before. Sample films from nations like Iceland or Romania or Turkey or Greece or Serbia (be careful of Serbian films; they can be dangerous sometimes). Or, better yet, take in a documentary like the great The Minutemen about the ever-vigilant and often-drunk men and women who volunteer to patrol our border with Mexico, or Beautiful Darling, about the Warhol staple Candy Darling. And in the name of all that is holy, don't forget to sample one of the many shorts programs. The cinematic world is at your feet for the next two weeks. Don't let slip through your fingers.

Stone

The scene opens with a flashback to 30-some years earlier, with a young couple sitting quietly at home. The husband is watching golf on TV, the wife is making him a drink, as she has clearly done hundreds of times before. Somewhere in the house is their infant daughter. After preparing what she believes will be the last drink she'll ever make for her husband, the wife announces that she's leaving him. He is in disbelief, but rather than attempt to talk her out of it or understand her reasons, he runs upstairs to where their child is, grabs her, and dangles her out the second-story window. He's clearly upset, but the words he speaks put the burden of keeping their daughter alive on his wife. "Don't make me do it," he screams, not in anger but desperation. It doesn't take long for the wife to agree to stay.

Jump ahead to the present, when we see this same couple, much older now, played by Robert De Niro, as Jack a parole officer, and Frances Conroy as wife Madylyn, both of whom go through the empty routines of religion and life together. Jack is nearing retirement at the suburban Detroit prison where he works, and his last case is with a young convict nicknamed Stone (Edward Norton), a hard ass to be sure, but a man who seems willing and motivated to improve as his first parole hearing approaches. Their meetings are some of the best moments of acting I've seen all year, especially from De Niro, who hasn't been this sustained amount of good in a movie in easily 10-15 years. His gift is dialing it back and playing Jack as a guy who has seen and heard it all from the prisoners that parade before him day after day. He clearly despises each and every one of them, but there's something different about Stone, something that challenges him and makes him a little vulnerable.

It doesn't hurt that Stone's wife, Lucetta (Milla Jovovich), has been hounding him to see if there's anything she an do to improve the chances that Jack will recommend her husband for parole. Jack avoids her at first, but her undeniable beauty and overt sexuality eventually overwhelm Jack, who has never known, let alone talked at length to, a woman like Lucetta. And without too much effort, the two start sleeping together, and Jack's world goes into a tailspin. A more obvious film would have turned this story into a classic blackmail tale in which Lucetta and Stone force Jack to approve Stone's parole so they don't tell Jack's wife about the affair, but Stone is a much better movie than that. This is a film interested in the inner workings of its characters. Stone finds religion--as many prisoners do--but his conversion seems genuine. His questions about God and forgiveness and sin hit a chord with Jack that underscore the guilt he feels for the affair. The question that Stone keeps asking Jack is a variation on "What, you've never done anything wrong in your whole life?" And immediately, your mind flashes to that opening sequence. Jack is as much a prisoner and bully as Stone is.

Director John Curran (We Don't Live Here Anymore and The Painted Veil, which also starred Norton) keeps a necessarily tight rein on De Niro and Norton, and the result is staggeringly strong performances from both, with De Niro reminding us that he's the master of the nuanced, detailed performance. Jack's every nervous tick and inability to express emotion is layered across De Niro's furrowed brow. I'd go see the film again, just to watch him work; it's been a long while since I've felt that way. Norton counters by being a little more brash and crude, but that's completely appropriate for this prisoner with corn-rowed hair and a long-time inmates speech patterns and choice of four-letter words. The joy in Norton's performance is the transformative qualities we see in Stone. He may have been attempting to placate and fool Jack in the beginning, but in pretending to be a better man, he actually started to become one, almost by accident, by simply thinking about his crimes.

The film's genuine surprise is Jovovich, who is rarely given the opportunity on screen to exude her inherent sexuality like she does in Stone. She comes onto her husband on her visit to the prison one minute, brings home a stranger from a bar that night, and seduces Jack as methodically as one might plan a bank robbery. She's a decent enough action star, but put her in scenes with some of the planet's best actors, and she rises to the occasion.

Stone is a film that asks risky questions about what makes a person good or bad. Does going to church make you better than someone who doesn't? Does admitting your guilt and paying your debt to society make you a worse human being than someone who simply never got caught? At what point in a person's life are they beyond redemption? These are weighty thoughts to ponder, and Stone isn't afraid to put them right in your face to consider them. Great acting and a compelling story--hey, that sounds like a movie worth seeing. Imagine that.

To read my exclusive interview with Stone star Edward Norton, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Secretariat

This is a movie about a race horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973. Not to take all the mystery out of the experience of watching Secretariat, but 99 percent of the people who might even consider going to see this movie already know at least that fact. Sure, it was the first horse to do so in 25 years, and the horse set speed records that stand to this day at two of the three tracks. And yes, Secretariat made it on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the same week, but Bruce Springsteen did the same thing (minus the SI cover) two years later, so is that really all that special? Okay, I'll admit, I'm as impressed with the horse's accomplishments as any non-horse racing fan can be, but the movie Secretariat finds new and interesting ways of sucking the inherent drama and excitement out of just about every minute of its two-hour running time. And it does so by piling on unnecessary subplots about owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane) and her family that are enough to stop any horse in its tracks.

The bigger problem with Secretariat is that nearly every actor in the film, with the exception of Lane, seems horribly miscast, starting with John Malkovich as notorious trainer Lucien Laurin, whose big quirk seems to be that he launches into speaking French when he gets frustrated. I'm sorry, but if you're going to hire Malkovich to play any part in any movie and then load him up with trite dialogue like he gets to speak here, you should be ashamed at wasting such a valuable resource. The key story is that of Chenery, who inherited her father's farm after his death, and decided to see if it could turn a profit by breeding horses. Director Randall Wallace (We Were Soldiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and the writer of Braveheart) certainly makes the Southern settings look pretty, but the human drama seemed utterly manufactured. I could not have cared less about the tension between Chenery and her husband (Dylan Walsh) or the bizarre story about their oldest daughter turning into a hippie. Who cares?

The more interesting aspects to Secretariat involve Chenery guaranteeing her investors the Triple Crown or she risks losing everything, or the way other horse owners (all men) treat her with such intense disrespect because she's a woman. The horse racing sequences are well staged and loaded with the inherent drama you'd expect from such a race, but honestly, this is a largely forgettable account of the life and career of a creature many believe to be the greatest racehorse that ever lived, and the woman who first saw potential in him from birth. Instead, the film gets diverted from its best characters and gives us far too many scenes involving "Entourage's" Kevin Connolly as a cliche sports writer. Is that really what audiences came to this movie to see?

Within hours of watching Secretariat, I'd forgotten large chunk of the extraneous scenes, and what I was left with was a far shorter and more interesting work. In recent years, Disney has had a solid tradition of compelling, well-made sports dramas with top-notch casts and directors, but this film falls short of the standard set by other such works. I will always be impressed by Penny Chenery's accomplishments and intuition, but I was not much impressed with this disposable and forgettable telling of her story life in horse racing.

It's Kind of a Funny Story

Shortly after Zach Galifianakis became a household name thanks to The Hangover, I saw him in another, radically different work called Visioneers, which combined elements of drama, sci-fi, and dark humor in wonderful ways. For the most part, Galifianakis is playing it straight in that movie, and I actually like him better when he's not trying so hard to be funny. Of course, he's the funniest thing in The Hangover, but I think they guy is so much more than a crude kind of clown. In It's Kind of a Funny Story, from directors and adaptors (from the novel by Ned Vizzini) Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who wrote and/or directed the great films Half Nelson and Sugar, Galifianakis plays Bobby, a knowing, intelligent, and occasionally depressed patient in a hospital psychiatric ward. He befriends the film's protagonist, Craig (Keir Gilchrist who plays the gay son on "United States of Tara"), a self-admitted high school student who simply feels too much and needs to escape school and work through his burgeoning suicidal thoughts.

The film starts out on shaky ground. This seems like one of those films where the patients are only as crazy as they need to be from scene to scene, but for the most part, the supporting actors of crazies are all extremely strong. Viola Davis plays Craig's psychiatrist, "Lost's" Jeremy Davies plays a worker and caretaker in the hospital, Zoe Kravitz as a girl Craig has a crush on from school, Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig's clueless (and underwritten) parents, and the best surprise of the bunch, Emma Roberts plays fellow patient Noelle. But Galifianakis is the real stunner here. Sure he's werid and spontaneous and driven to do things to set chaos in motion and inspire Craig to break free of his restrictive mental chains. Bobby isn't set up to be the "inspirational character," but he sure becomes one during the course of this movie. And when we find out why he's in the hospital and what's waiting for him on the outside, our hearts break just a little bit more.

Roberts is almost too convincing as Noelle, a self-destructive young woman (she's a cutter) who forms a tentative relationship with Craig. But she is hugely suspicious of men and, unfortunately for him, Craig falls in that category. Some of the mental patient outbursts and miraculous breakthroughs that occur in Craig's short time in the hospital are far too easily predictable. For example, one resident won't leave his room, barely speaks, and only likes certain music. And you can probably take a couple guesses what it takes to coax him out of his room thanks to Craig and Bobby. Yes, this is also one of those movies where the patients end up curing each other. Sigh.

Still, with all of its shortcomings, there is something infectious and inherently sweet about It's Kind of a Funny Story. Gilchrist plays Craig not as a whiny white kid with so much time on his hands that he invents problems; he's more of a person who sees all of the danger and dread in the world and internalizes it. He doesn't blame himself, but he's angry and scared he can't do anything to make people or problems any better. I've known people like this, and it's a bit scary because short of solving all of the world's ailments, there's not much you can do to help someone like that short of teaching them to care less, which seems shameful.

It's Kind of a Funny Story has a charm that is sometimes lives on the surface, but when it's at its best, dwells underneath and doesn't feel the need to be overt about its messages. Gilchirst makes it easy to care about his mental health, even while many of those around him feel a bit too cookie-cutter crazy. While Galifianakis certainly gets the biggest laughs in the film playing a man who finds it easy to guide Craig through his issues but can't seem to overcome his own, the best parts of his performance are when Bobby is struggling to overcome the belief that his family would be better off without him. Those moments are among the best in the film. Sure, things wrap up a little too neat and clean for my tastes, but the strong acting overcome most of the movie's shortcomings. It's kind of a good, sometimes funny, movie, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Life As We Know It

I may be telling a tale out of school, but the person I'm about to tell this story about said this in front of other people (although I was the only journalist), and he knew who he was talking to. And his comments pertain this this piece-of-shit movie. When I was visiting the Tranformers 3 sets a few weeks back, I actually didn't formally interview any of the actors who were working that day, including Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Josh Duhamel. And while all of the actors I crossed paths with on that day were very polite, Duhamel was especially cool. He saw me standing on the set at one point scribbling down some notes and came right up to me, shook my hand, and said, "Are you our reporter on set today?" For the rest of my time on the set, he was especially nice, asking questions about my background, the site, movies, and what I like about living in Chicago. In turn, he talked about things both personal (including lovely things about his wife, Fergie; the man is in love) and professional, most of which I won't ever share.

At one one point during one of our chats, I brought up Life As We Know It, because the trailer had just started running. I think I said something about the premise looking interesting, and he volunteered that he thought the film featured the best acting work of his career. I was taken aback by this comment. Certainly, the trailer indicated that the film featured some serious, even emotionally devastating, moments, but his best acting? I suddenly got excited to see the film. I think my initial response to his statement was "Really?", to which he replied, "Well, it's better than When In Rome." Did I mention how cool this guy is? Of the two statements Duhamel made to me about Life As We Know It, I can now confirm that one of them is absolutely, 100 percent true--it is better than When In Rome.

Life As We Know It is about Duhamel as Eric and the movie poison known as Katherine Heigl as Holly, who are set up on a blind date by mutual friends (played by Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks), and they barely get out the front door to go on the date before Duhamel's womanizing and generally crude ways send the date into a tailspin. Because their mutual friends are getting married and eventually have a baby girl, Holly and Eric do run into each other at various parties over the years, but they maintain their antagonism heartily. In the world of romantic comedies, we know exactly where this set up leads, but Life As We Know It isn't only about the comedy (that's for fucking sure) or the romance. When the parents of the little girl die in a car accident, their lawyer springs the ultimate surprise on Holly and Eric--they now have joint custody of little Sophie. Let the poop jokes begin.

What made me most angry about this movie is that it pretends it's something more than it is. By adding this layer of manufactured sadness as an excuse for Holly and Eric to put aside their bickering and work together to make a stable environment for the child, Life As We Know It puts on this bullshit pious face that simply isn't backed up by a solid script or anything resembling character growth. They move into the home of their dead friends, and set up schedules for looking out for Sophie, but on his days off, Eric is bringing home a different floozy every night. Plus, he's a network sports director, so that would pretty much kill most nights for him anyway, right? I realize logic doesn't often figure into these stories, but put a little thought into it, geniuses.

I'm not defending Duhamel's choices as an actor, but I think he's better than this and most of the films he's done. Just because he's good looking doesn't mean he's suited for these rapscallion roles. Try a higher-profile drama or keep making action films like Transformers--at least you look convincing holding an automatic weapon. But as always, the issue here is Heigl, whose very busty presence sends a toxic shockwave through every films she inhabits. She reminds me of putting flower stickers on an outhouse: sure, it looks pretty, but there's still just shit inside. Okay, maybe that doesn't quite make sense, but my point is that she's terrible, Life As We Know It is terrible, and as much fun as it is watching Katherine Heigl in a different tight outfit every four minutes or so (the costume changes are just dumb), you will hate this movie that fails as a drama, a comedy, and a romance.

I Spit on Your Grave

The first time I saw the original 1978 version of I Spit on Your Grave (aka Day of the Woman) by director Meir Zarchi, I literally was sick to my stomach. I was a sophomore in high school, and had never seen rape portrayed on screen (or, in my case, on TV) before, at least not in such a punishing, never-ending way. Watching Camille Keaton get repeatedly brutalized was simply more than my eyes and brain could handle. Later, when I read about the film, some called Keaton's revenge killings a feminist act on behalf of women over the centuries who had been abused by men. Others called it the worst kind of exploitation film. I remember Roger Ebert reviewing the film and calling for its removal from theaters, and I'm intensely curious what he'll think of this remake. In watching it again in anticipation of the remake, I found it less sickening but far from a female-empowerment film some claimed it was. In what appears to be an effort to underscore the woman-regaining-power theme, the makers of the new I Spit on Your Grave haven't changed much from the original, with one major exception--apparently this film's female victim has a structural engineering degree and comes up with some of the most elaborate revenge devices this side of the Saw films.

The set up is largely the same. Jennifer (Sarah Butler) is a writer who rents an isolated cabin in the woods to buckle down and avoid distraction. On her way to the cabin, she stops for gas and directions at a backwoods station, where the attendant (Jeff Branson) is a little too aggressive. She shoots him down, embarrassing him in front of his friends, and that's enough to make him an angry son of a bitch. It isn't long before the attendant a couple of his friends show up at the cabin to terrorize Jennifer. She manages to escape at first, running into the local sheriff (Andrew Howard), but it doesn't take long for him to show his true colors, and the four men rape her repeatedly, with one even filming some of their exploits.

If your stomach and good sense have already turned you away from this movie, you'd be in good company. The justification for the prolonged attack scenes (that don't even come close to being as bad as the original's, I should add) is supposed to be when Jennifer is left for dead when she jumps into a raging river, but she returns in a state of pure rage to knock off each of the men one by one using some of the most well-designed killing and torture devices I've ever seen made out of sticks, twine, and whatever else was lying around the cabin. Her punishment for the sheriff is especially awful, but utterly justified, I suppose.

I wasn't put off by the excessive violence in I Spit on Your Grave; I've seen much worse just in the last year. And I think the rape-revenge story was told better a couple years back in the remake of Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. My problem with this remake is that the few new things filmmaker Steven R. Monroe has introduced into Jennifer's revenge scenes are so ridiculously beyond the means of any normal human being that those moments took my completely out of the film. In a sad way, they sometimes made me and the audience I saw the movie with laugh, which immediately cheapens any empathy you have for Jennifer. Butler's performance is convincing, especially when she enters revenge mode, but she doesn't even come close to emulating the true psychotic break that Camille Keaton projected in the original. Her Jennifer was likely psychologically never coming back from her trauma. Butler screams a lot at the men who violated her, and that makes perfect sense, but Keaton's quiet luring in of her victims was much creepier.

The worst thing I can say about the new I Spit on Your Grave is that it somehow manages to both try too hard in spots, while not trying hard enough in others. If there's something worse than pointless, I think this film may have achieved that. I liked that this Jennifer tried to surpass the violence inflicted on her in the way she dispatches her attackers, but it comes across as a silly type of overkill. The film begins strong, but settles into its excesses a bit too easily and eagerly. Films of this nature don't have to try and be sensitive; they are almost designed to upset people, especially women. But the cautionary-tale element of the story is meant to be somehow redemptive. It isn't. As a result, the entire film feels shallow and empty.

mutuelle / June 10, 2011 3:41 AM

thanks for this blog

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