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Column Thu Nov 25 2010
Love and Other Drugs, Tangled, Made in Dagenham, Burlesque, The Nutcracker in 3D & Welcome to the Rileys
Love and Other Drugs
There's a name I want all of you to know. He's a supporting actor in the new Edward (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance) Zwick dramedy Love and Other Drugs (adapted from the book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman by Jamie Reidy), and his name is Josh Gad. Now, I don't know the man personally, never met him, interviewed him, etc.-- I'm sure he's a lovely man. I kinda recognized him from being in The Rocker, 21, and a recent episode of "Bored to Death," but that's it. In Love and Other Drugs he has one of the highest-profile roles of his career as Josh, the brother of Jake Gyllenhaal's pharmaceutical-rep character, Jamie. Here's why you should know him: because he nearly single-handedly destroys what is an otherwise really wonderful film about relationships in the face of medical adversity.
Jamie is the film's comic relief, except you know what? The film is already plenty funny without him. The character could have been easily extracted from the movie, and no one would even know he was gone. He dishes out one liners and disgusting behavior in a work that has plenty of laughs and amusing compromised morals thanks to great turns by the likes of Oliver Platt, Hank Azaria, Judy Greer, George Segal, and the late, great Jill Clayburgh. I'm sorry, but with supporting players of that caliber, you don't need a third-rate Jack Black man-child cluttering the screen.
I challenge anyone reading this to tell me what positive vibe Josh Gad adds to this otherwise intelligent, sharp, beautifully acted film. Maybe the fault is in the writing, but I don't think so. And, yes, I feel bad crapping on the guy who has barely registered on my radar before this movie. He's not a movie killer per se; he's more of a mood suicide bomber, who walks into a scene and destroys everything around him. He's not in the movie enough to ruin it completely, but he knocks its integrity down a peg in my book. That's all I'm going to say about him, and now I will review the rest of the film as if he weren't in it.
Gyllenhaal plays an aimless, handsome young man who goes through jobs like some people go through underwear, but he's never had any issues getting laid or dumping women in a way that (usually) doesn't hurt their feelings too much. He's a master at reading people, which is why when an opportunity to sell pharmaceuticals for Pfizer in one of their weakest markets (somewhere in Ohio, if memory serves), he excels once he's got the lay of the land and knows how to get access to doctors who otherwise want nothing to do with reps such as himself. It's especially gratifying to watch him walk into a doctor's office and sweet-talk the receptionists and nurses, including one played by the Queen of Comedy, Judy Greer, to gain access to the drug storage room where he can line up samples of his products.
His mentor and partner in crime in the territory is Bruce (Oliver Platt, who is always so inherently watchable, it scares me sometimes), and the two are both hoping to make enough of an impression in this secondary market to make the move to repping in Chicago. While in the offices of Dr. Knight (Hank Azaria), Jamie meets a patient named Maggie (Anne Hathaway, playing the most fully realized character of her career), and after many unnecessary attempts not to, the pair start up a passionate lust affair. There's a great scene between the two where they finally admit that they're fine with their relationship being purely physical, but behind their eyes, there's a hint that one or both will be falling in love soon.
There's an element to the plot that the filmmakers have gone out their way not to reveal in the trailers, so I'm going to try and talk around it somewhat. But you may want to enter this next section of my review with trepidation if you don't like spoilers. It's not a big plot twist or anything, but something about Maggie. You see, she has health issues and, as you might imagine, it has changed the way she lives her life and managed her relationships. She isn't looking for a man to take care of or feel sorry for her; that's fairly clear. But if there were a way a boyfriend could support her needs without appearing to do so, I think that's what her ideal man would be. Once the extent of her condition is revealed, she immediately tries to give Jamie an out-- hell, she practically drop kicks him out the door-- and things in their escapist, bedroom-centered life get extremely complicated. In case you hadn't figured this out, there are moments of intense sadness and pain in Love and Other Drugs, alongside a great deal of humor and insight.
Gyllenhaal and Hathaway (who were also a couple in Brokeback Mountain) are so naturally good together that I immediately wish I could see them do a string of films together, playing new and interesting characters each time around. They don't just look good (naked); they radiate affection and sexual playfulness, so much so that you want to just jump into bed with them and start a pillow fight. Wheeee!
When Pfizer introduces Viagra to the world, Jamie's life and career gets a whole lot better. And what I truly appreciated about Love and Other Drugs -- and a testament to how strong the screenplay from Zwick, Marshall Herskovitz, and Charles Randolph is -- is that the scenes that focus just on Jaime's job are just as enjoyable as the material about him and Maggie. One of the most complex supporting performances comes from Azaria, as a deeply cynical physician who also lets drug reps ply him with drinks, meals and easy women to make their sales. He couldn't care less about the medical benefits of these drugs at all. He grumbles about insurance companies, patient care and his shrinking bottom line, and by the end of the film, you actually start to understand why he would take advantage of every free thing the drug companies throw his way.
At its core, Love and Other Drugs is, as the title implies, a love story and a perfect example of one at that. More than that, it's the story of two adults falling in love. Yes, there are complications in the relationship, but they aren't the kind of manufactured, childish bullshit that 95 percent of the world's romantic comedies seem to thrive upon. These are real-world issues between two flawed individuals who are struggling to find a way to be together against adversities that could easily tear them apart. As upsetting as it might be to see them clumsily maneuver their way around the early stages of this serious relationship, because these two actors are as strong as they've ever been, it's also highly entertaining. Love and Other Drugs is the film adults should make a point to see over this long weekend. As a bonus, for the first half of the movie, you couldn't pay Hathaway to keep her clothes on. So, there's that. Enjoy the hell out of this one, people.
While it may lack some of the emotional depth of what remains Disney's finest modern animated feature, Beauty and the Beast, the studio's 50th film, Tangled, is as good as or better than works like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, due in large part to the man who wrote the music for all three of the aforementioned works: Alan Menken, whose tunes have also had us leaving theaters humming after such films as Little Shop of Horrors, Newsies and Enchanted. With lyricist Glenn Slater, Menken gives us about a dozen music cues, most of which are infectious tunes. My personal favorite is their ode to overbearing mothers everywhere, "Mother Knows Best," performed by the mind-blowingly good Donna Murphy, who voices Mother Gothel. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Tangled is a reworking of the legend of Rapunzel. It's not exactly the Brothers Grimm version, but it's not that far off (so much so that this is the first of Disney's "princess" films to earn a PG rating). The king and queen of the land have a child who has been infused with the power of a flower that grants those who recite an incantation near it the power of eternal youth as long as you rejuvenate yourself about once a week. Because her mother drank medicine with the flower in it, the youth-giving power was passed onto the baby Rapunzel, turning her hair golden. The evil witch Gothel, who had been using and hiding the flower to keep herself young for years, kidnaps the child and hides her away in a tower, convincing her "daughter" that the outside world is too scary and dangerous to go into. When Rapunzel questions Gothel about possibly going out, Gothel breaks out "Mother Knows Best," and a big smile grew across my face. Most of you know Murphy as Mrs. Dr. Octopus, who is killed early on in Spider-Man 2, or from The Fountain, but I've never heard her pull out the mean quite so convincingly. Joan Crawford would have played her 60 years ago.
The 18-year-old Rapunzel is voiced by Mandy Moore, who effortlessly captures her character's sweetness and a little bit of her crazy. She has been locked up in one big room for her whole life, so it's not surprising she's a bit eccentric. Her best friend is a chameleon named Pascal, who is quite funny and expressive. In fact, two of the best characters in Tangled don't have voices. In addition to Pascal, there's the Captain of the Guard's horse, Maximus, who is hellbent on protecting Rapunzel and capturing a handsome thief named Flynn (Zachary Levi), who, while running away from the heist of a valuable crown from Rapunzel's real parents, stumbles upon the hidden tower where she is being held. The two eventually strike a deal whereby if Flynn escorts Rapunzel to the village where, every year on her birthday, thousands of paper lanterns are launched into the air, then she will return the crown that she has hidden from him.
I watch "Chuck," so I thought I was aware of Levi's capabilities, but I've never heard him be quite as funny as he is here. It's like the restraints are off, when I didn't realize they were ever on. There's a moment when he tries to take advantage of Rapunzel being torn about disobeying her mother by leaving the tower, and his powers of persuasion are as magnificent as they are unsuccessful. One of my other favorite musical moments takes place at a tavern where all manner of thugs drink and cause trouble. The establishment is called the Snuggly Duckling, and Flynn takes Rapunzel there (again, hoping to scare her back to the tower), but instead her talk of realizing her dreams sends the hooligans (including those voiced by Brad Garrett, Jeffrey Tambor, Paul F. Tompkins, and Richard Kiel) into the pub sing-a-long "I've Got A Dream."
Also along for some villainy are a pair of thieves, the Stabbington Brothers, who also happen to be Flynn's ex-partners, chasing him down for that crown. If I'm not mistaken, one of the brothers doesn't talk and the other is voiced by the great and unmistakable Ron Perlman. You can probably guess where things lead on this road to the lamp ceremony, which Rapunzel doesn't realize is done to commemorate her disappearance. And while she's convinced Flynn only wants his treasure, she starts to have feelings for him during their journey, which includes being pursued by the Stabbingtons and Rapunzel's fake mother.
Disney opted not to go the hand-drawn animation route as they did with The Princess and the Frog last year, and while I truly do not want to see that art form die out, the computer animation used for Tangled is quite richly realized, while the 3D is spectacularly flawless. First-time feature director Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (who also directed the entertaining Bolt) did a great job getting these energetic performances from the voice actors without their work coming across as pandering to young children, who might be a little shocked by parts of the film. There's a bit of death, a lot of endangerment, and even some icky kissing. But mostly, Tangled is pure enjoyment of the highest level. It's a classic story told in a refreshingly new way; the music is superb; and the animation is exciting, fluid, and strikingly realized. It's impossible for me to imagine anyone not having fun with Tangled, easily one of Disney's best in the last 20 years.
Made in Dagenham
This spirited if by-the-numbers story of a group of female factory workers in Britain during the 1960s has a great deal of fire but often loses itself in cutesy behavior in its effort to tell the story of the launching pad for equal pay for women. The women in the Ford Motor Company factory are led by the unlikely Rita O'Grady (Sally Hawkins of Happy-Go-Lucky and Never Let Me Go), a young mother and wife who has trouble even talking to her son's ruthless teacher. Yet somehow, she is chosen to represent the 187 women in the union whose demands eventually lead to a discussion of equal pay and a re-classification of their jobs as car seat upholstery sewers from "unskilled" labor to skilled (which would result in better pay).
As she proved in Happy-Go-Lucky, Hawkins has an irresistible charm and aura, but Made in Dagenham seems as much intent on keeping things cute and bright as it does telling this very serious story. Still, there are enough talented actors on hand to keep the proceedings easy to watch. Bob Hoskins plays the women's union representative who covertly guides Rita through the process telling her when its safe to ask for something unprecedented and when it might not be. I also liked Geraldine James as Connie, the matron of the female workers, who allegiances are torn between her co-workers and her ailing husband. Rosamund Pike is quite good as Lisa, the wife of Ford's Head of Industrial Relations (Rupert Graves). Lisa is one of the better-drawn characters in Dagenham, as she is a university-educated woman who is told by her husband to keep her thoughts on the female workers (whom she supports) to herself and stick to being the perfect wife and hostess. Her frustration is one of the saddest presented in the film.
I was particularly impressed with Miranda Richardson's take on Barbara Castle, the British Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity, a modern woman in a position to actually make the equal pay demand a national issue. Perhaps the combination of having a woman in this job was serendipitous, but it certainly makes this story a lot more interesting. The film also exposes a king of collusion that went on between the union reps who were supposed to be fighting for these women's demands and the automaker who threatened to pull out of the community if they were forced to make this adjustment.
There's never really any doubt how these events will turn out (the Equal Pay Act was made law in 1970), but director Nigel Cole (Calendar Girls, Saving Grace) is able to extract suitable levels of drama from this story to make it a largely enjoyable experience. But the film also feels simplified and leans a bit too much on speeches that probably didn't happen and words that were never spoken. Plus, while I'm sure the pressures of not working while the women were on strike took a toll on home life, it doesn't make for particularly compelling movie moments, and Rita's husband's complaints about how the blokes treat badly him because his wife is causing trouble sounds a lot like whining. Still, Made in Dagenham is a painless viewing experience, and if you've been craving a British movie like they used to make in the 1990s, you could do worse. The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.
This is a truly musical weekend at the movies, with Disney's Tangled and a weirdly realized version of The Nutcracker coming out almost in secret (more on that later). But the only one of the three that is "Fabulous!" is Burlesque, an unapologetically campy and unintentionally awful work that doesn't so much qualify as a movie as it does a 105-minute moving photo shoot for star Christina Aguilera. A combination of the worst parts of Showgirls, Coyote Ugly and Glitter, this movie exists for no other reason than to have people tell Aguilera how talented she is as a singer, dancer and looker. She plays Ali, a small-town midget from Iowa with a killer voice (there's no getting around how great her vocal skills are) who decides one day for no particular reason that she's moving to Los Angeles to make it as a singer.
Instead, she wanders into a club that looks like it's built in half of a duplex and houses the town's premiere burlesque show run by Tess (Cher). OK, I really do like Cher as an actor, and she in no way embarrasses herself in this movie other than by simply being in it. But her face literally distracted me so much that I almost never heard her speak. Her features are so exaggerated that I felt like I was staring at someone wearing a Cher Halloween mask. Still, her two musical numbers are passable as pop music, although certainly not the kind that would play in a burlesque club.
Ali wants to do what the girls on the stage do: dance and lip sync to classic bump-and-grind songs. But what she really wants is a chance to sing like an angel. After she befriends a bartender at the club (Cam Gigandet's Jack), she gets a waitressing job, while her eyes stay glued on the stage as she memorizes the routines. Soon, she gets a shot at dancing thanks to an impromptu audition for Tess and her gay sidekick, Sean (the utterly wasted Stanley Tucci, whose job appears to be telling Cher how beautiful and wonderful a person she is). And by sheer coincidence, when jealous fellow dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell) pulls the plug on Ali's music, the old Aguilera pipes kick in to sing the song live, thus changing the course of written history forever.
Burlesque is the kind of movie that could only be given life by springing from the engorged loins of the singer at the center of the action. I don't care if Aguilera had anything to do with making this movie happen or not, once she signed on, the entire world began to revolve around her beautiful voice. Artificial drama is tossed in having to do with a greedy real estate developer (Eric Dane) attempting to buy the struggling club away from Tess and her nebbishy ex-husband (Peter Gallagher), while making a play for Ali, who is "forced" to move in with the bartender while trying with all her might not to fall in bed with the charmer. The film's greatest crime is the way it virtually ignores one of its greatest assets, Alan Cumming, who plays the guy at the door who sells tickets to the patrons. Does he get to sing? Not really. But wait, didn't Cumming play the emcee on Broadway in "Cabaret"? Why, yes he did, but writer-director Steve Antin (a former actor who appeared in such film as The Goonies, The Accused and The Last American Virgin) took a big dump on one of the few people in his cast qualified to sing burlesque-style songs. Instead, the gifted Cumming is reduced to popping his head into a couple of scenes and delivering various "Tisk tisk"-type responses to the naughtiness on stage. The film feels like he had a bigger role that was chopped out for more Peter Gallagher or Eric Dane. Cumming is too nice a guy to say it, so allow me to do so on his behalf: Fuck you, Steve Antin.
And about that music. While some of it does adhere to my understanding of the kind of accompaniment that goes along with burlesque routines, most of what is here are pop-ified dance numbers that have nothing to with classic burlesque. One of the funniest things in the film is that Jack the bartender is a frustrated songwriter, whose big moment comes when he gives Ali a song of his to dance to as the movie's big closer. It is such a god-awful song that they should put Jack (and the real songwriter) should be thrown in music jail. Then there are a couple numbers -- one by Cher and one by Aguilera -- that are simply thrown in as spotlight numbers and have nothing to do with a routine or real life, for that matter. But Alan Cumming gets nothing, right Antin? I grew up in the '80s, and back then, we would have called this kind of work a video album, because that's all it is -- a collection of songs, mostly by one or two artists, strung together by a thin story line. Sure, the women are pretty and scantily clad, and that does count for something. But sitting through this predictable, horribly written, ill-conceived mess is the definition of mental cruelty. If you can do it, more power to you. If you can do it and enjoy the experience, you're dead to me.
The Nutcracker in 3D
Where to begin with this nightmare that is likely to become a cult classic around Christmastime every year for people who enjoy the equivalent of torture porn for kids. Now, I'm a great admirer of director Andrei Konchalovskiy (Maria's Lovers, Runaway Train, Shy People, Duet for One and his crowning achievement, Tango & Cash), but his take on The Nutcracker (which he adapted with Chris Solimine) defies all explanations and good taste. I'll fully admit, I don't know the actual Nutcracker story, but I'm fairly certain it didn't include Albert Einstein in its character list.
At least the setting is appropriate: Vienna in the 1920s. Young Mary (Elle Fanning) lives with her parents (Richard E. Grant and Yuliya Vysotskaya) and younger, obnoxious brother in a stately manner. There's a huge Christmas tree in their living room, but when mom and dad go out for an evening's celebration, the children are put in the care of their wacky Uncle Albert (Nathan Lane). Now, I couldn't swear that this character is actually called Albert Einstein in the movie, but he looks like Einstein, is called Albert, and he sings a song about relativity. But does that mean that this Christmas-celebrating family has a Jewish uncle? Best not to ask such questions in this movie, lest your head begin to pound furiously. In case you were wondering, Lane's Uncle Albert is also the film's comic relief, especially with his hilarious exaggerated Austrian accent.
And yes, I did say that Lane sings a song. Here's where things start getting bizarre. You see, this isn't the ballet version of The Nutcracker. However, Tchaikovsky's score is used in this movie with lyrics (!) added by The Lion King songwriter Tim Rice, with a funky fresh beat tossed in just to make sure the piss truly saturates Tchaikovsky's corpse. What other atrocities are there? Oh yes. When Mary's Nutcracker doll starts talking, it tells her that all his friends call him "NC." The doll is voiced by Shirley Henderson, but weirdly enough, when NC comes to life as The Prince, he's played by child actor Charlie Rowe.
But these story and songs issues are nothing compared to the moment when The Rat King (John Turturro) enters the picture. I'll give Turturro credit, he does not half-ass this performance even a little. He is committed to making his performance memorable, even if it is awful. With his rat teeth, which occasionally expand into a terrifying were-rat face, and whiskers, Turturro plays his man-rat character as it should be played -- like Hitler. His mission is to keep Vienna eternally dark. To do this, he must find all of the toys in the land and burn them 24/7 to create a wall of smoke over the city, so his rat minions can live above ground (I guess rats don't like daylight). I guess opening up a steel foundry never occurred to him. The other odd thing is Frances de la Tour's portrayal of The Rat Queen, even though I'm pretty sure she's playing the King's mother. Ew.
Of course, there's the slightest chance that the entire movie is taking place in Mary's imaginative dreamworld. You think? So, any sense of peril is pretty much undercut by us knowing that. And I don't want to give you the impression that The Nutcracker 3D is done on the cheap. Quite the contrary, some of the special effects are pretty good; money was spent on this film, make no mistake. But as I listened to each actor use their own accents or watched a pile of toys aflame in a town square (like a book burning) or cried as timeless symphonies were turned into pop tunes, I started to realize that there was something even worse afoot. I've said this before, and I'll say it until people stop converting 2D films into 3D. This version of The Nutcracker is about a city in darkness, and much of it takes place in pitch-black sewers under a city. I'm fairly certain this movie was not shot in 3D, because if it were it wouldn't look so horribly dim. I said this after I witnessed The Last Airbender, and I'll say it here -- stop cloaking your films in darkness on top of darkness. The key complaint about 3D is that it makes the screen look dark, so why artificially convert a movie set almost entire in darkness? The 3D simply isn't there when you do, you fucking idiots.
But the 3D screw-up only underscores a much, much bigger problem with The Nutcracker by Konchalovskiy. This film is so horribly ill-conceived that I am truly shocked it's being released at all. Weirdly enough, it looks like the movie is only being released (at least in Chicago) in theaters outside the city limits. Hope you kids in the 'burbs like crap. If you're one of the great unfortunates who live within driving distance of this movie, please stay far away from it, for your own safety.
Welcome to the Rileys
I'm going to come right out and admit that I'm not exactly sure what the point of director Jake Scott's second feature (after 1999's Plunkett & Macleane, with a slew of great music videos in between the two films), but that didn't stop me from being drawn into its oddly touching story of the uneasy relationship between a middle-aged man and a teen stripper/prostitute he befriends and tries to save. James Gandolfini plays Doug Riley, a man whose life has lost its light since the accidental death of his teen daughter in a car crash. His wife, Lois (the great Melissa Leo), has been afraid to leave their suburban home since the loss, so when Doug goes on a business trip to New Orleans, she must ask her irritated sister (Ally Sheedy, in a nice cameo) to come pick up her mail.
While in New Orleans, Doug attempts to escape the housewares convention he's attending by going into a strip club, where he meets Mallory (Kristen Stewart), a stripper who talks him into a private-room dance which in turn becomes a solicitation. But Doug is more interested in hiding out and less in the bump and grind or sexual come-ons. For some reason, Mallory's brash manner and sexual inhibitions make him curious about her living situation and whether she is beyond saving. It doesn't take genius or a psychiatrist to see that some part of Mallory reminds Doug of his dead daughter, and before long he is sleeping on her couch, helping her fix up her rented home, and trying to train her to be a bit more self sufficient and hopefully quit hooking.
Naturally, his half-baked plan hits some bumps, the first being that his abandoned wife decides that Doug's single phone call explaining that he was staying away from home for a while wasn't sufficient enough an explanation for his absence. She manages to drag herself out of the house and drive down to New Orleans from Missouri. Her perilous journey serves as a sweet and humorous sideplot that Leo sells to perfection. Not every actor could make this work, but she's not every actor.
Welcome to the Rileys is weirdly gripping, often go-for-broke emotionally heavy, and beautifully acted. I have to admit, I didn't think think Stewart really had it in her to surprise me, but as the foul-mouthed Mallory, she reminds me that there was a time when she was a strong actor and not just an accidental cultural icon. Not surprisingly, Lois isn't thrilled with Doug and Mallory's arrangement, but once she signs on, the couple becomes Mallory's de facto parents for a while, and things begin to gel. Rileys did not end the way I thought it would, but it does end the way it should, and that's a very good thing. I was strangely charmed and pulled into this film, and if you like your dramas a little on the bizarre and slightly inappropriate side, look no further. The film opens today at the AMC Pipers Alley Theater.