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Column Fri Jan 14 2011

The Dilemma, The Green Hornet, Another Year, The Illusionist & Marwencol

The Dilemma

It's always a frustrating thing when a film is promoted one way, when the true nature of the work is something quite different. The most recent example of that might be James L. Brooks' How Do You Know, which is a quite worthy film about three 30-somethings going through transitions in their lives that are leaving their futures with more question marks than any of them thought imaginable. And now we also have the Ron Howard-directed The Dilemma, starring Vince Vaughn and Kevin James.

On the surface (and according to all forms of advertising for the film), the movie seems to be a comedy about a Ronny (Vaughn), who owns a car-design business with his oldest friend Nick (James), and finds out that Nick's wife, Geneva (Winona Ryder), is cheating. While Ronny has no doubt in his mind that Nick needs to be told about the infidelity, he questions the timing of the news delivery. The pair are on the brink of signing the biggest deal of their professional career, and Ronny is afraid that breaking the news will wreck Nick's ability to finish the project. Ronny confronts Geneva with his knowledge, and she promises to be the one to tell Nick, but not without revealing a few things about the marriage that shock Ronny right out of his belief that the two have the perfect relationship, one that he has modeled his relationship with long-term girlfriend Beth (Jennifer Connelly) after. In the end, Geneva chickens out, leaving the burden of telling and proving the affair all on Ronny.

So, the dilemma in the title is more referring to the timing of breaking the news to Nick than whether or not Ronny will tell him. And as you might be able to tell from my description, the opportunity for humor runs throughout the film, but that doesn't stop Ron Howard and company from exploring the far more serious--even dark--undertones of this story. Ronny is a recovering gambling addict, and the multiple pressures being put on him at this time have him walking past OTBs in the middle of the night. He also thinks that Beth is hiding something from him, and when he finds out what it is, it breaks his heart and makes him realize he still has a lot of damage to fix between them.

I've watched Vaughn pull off these kinds of solid dramatic roles before, so the real surprise in The Dilemma is watching Kevin James exercise his acting chops more than he ever has before. I've gotten a couple of emails in the last few weeks asking me if this film is "like every other Kevin James movie," which I'm guessing isn't a good thing in their eyes. In truth, The Dilemma is nothing like other Kevin James movies, because it's actually good.

I'm guessing some people will be confused by the tone of the film, which sometimes jerks us back and forth between comedy and drama, but I think the transitions are more seamless than that. If anything, my only complaint about The Dilemma is that occasionally the comedy gets in the way of the far more effective serious moments. Do we really need to see Vaughn do a prat fall in the Chicago Botanical Garden and go face first into poison plants? In a way, I liked the fact that Ronny spends most of the movie physically, as well as emotionally, damaged.

The Dilemma features a few nice supporting players, including Queen Latifah as a woman working with Ronny and Nick to get their new engine ready for a big presentation; Channing Tatum as Zip, Geneva's new boyfriend; Chelcie Ross as the man representing the big auto maker Ronny and Nick are pitching to; Amy Morton as Ronny's sister; and Clint Howard as...well, you'll see. It's a great part. I think it's pretty clear that Allan (21, The Switch, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps) Loeb's screenplay was more of a jumping-off point for the actors and director to build upon, and that's a good thing. Each actor gets their moment to really show us what they've got. Despite her character's awful behavior, Ryder plays Geneva as sympathetic and frustrated. Beth is the picture of patience, but Ronny still loves her enough to make certain she's not working on a marriage timetable that he isn't aware of.

What you might find surprising is that neither male lead is playing his character like a man-child. These are mature, responsible men who like to have fun, but they do so with their significant others. They don't gripe about being in a relationship. They still make mistakes, but they are filling the flaws of hard-working grownups. Go figure. And Ron Howard, wisely, lets the story do the work for him. He shoots his Chicago settings beautifully, but as he is prone to do, he doesn't force a style on the work. Instead, he lets the style rise up through the material. Howard is a master at letting the story dictate the style, and with The Dilemma, the style is to give the actors room to breathe and work their magic.

The film might make some feel uncomfortable with the level of intimacy it manages to achieve. A third-act "intervention" sequence is funny at first, but gets frightfully serious in a hurry. But I think people who give this one a chance are going to be impressed with the work. I know I was.

To read my exclusive interview with The Dilemma director Ron Howard or star Vince Vaughn, click on their names or go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Green Hornet

There was a time not too long ago when the month of January was looked upon in three ways for moviegoers: a time to catch up on stuff they missed in December in anticipation of awards season, a time for films that were put out in limited release the year prior to expand into secondary markets, and a time when shit got dumped onto the public who were largely too busy focusing on the first two categories to care about the third. But I think the days of seeing January as a dumping ground for bad movies is done. Between Ron Howard's The Dilemma and Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet--both of which are extremely likable, watchable works--January has become fun again. Yes, we're still going to get crap like Season of the Witch and Country Strong (every month has shit releases), but just wait until you see the end-of-month release The Mechanic. Holy crap!

Which brings us to The Green Hornet, the long delayed in pre-production and post-production effort from writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and visionary director Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Let's deal with the post-conversion 3D aspect of the film right off the bat. I first saw the film without 3D, and I loved the look and fun of this adventure story about Britt Reid (Rogen), the spoiled son of a newspaper magnate (Tom Wilkinson) who not only assumes the reigns of his father's newspaper when dad dies, but he decides to become a superhero to stop a criminal mastermind from taking over the L.A. drug trade. More recently, I saw the film again in 3D, marking the first time I've seen the same film with and without this added effect.

As you may have noticed, most post-conversion 3D movies (meaning ones that aren't shot in 3D), look like they are being projected through the toilet in a halfway house that hasn't been flushed in a month. I've railed on this process more than once, mostly notably after I saw The Last Airbender. As a result, I've had some very nice people working at conversion houses tell me that, if given the time and finances, a converted 3D movie can look quite great. By my calculation, The Green Hornet is the first movie that didn't rush its conversion process, and actually took the time to get it right. I'm still not convinced the film needed to be in 3D, but at least it doesn't look murky. To the contrary, the print I saw looked nice and bright, and the 3D worked great.

Seth Rogen isn't the most interesting thing in The Green Hornet, but that shouldn't stop you from checking it out. The title character was never the focal point of the TV show either, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, there are two more fascinating people in the plot than Reid. The first is Kato (the incredibly versatile Jay Chou), a former employee of Britt's father who is brought back into the fold by Britt for both his ability to trick out and weaponize expensive cars and make the perfect cup of coffee. Kato is also a master martial artist who moves so fast that it appears others around him are moving in slow motion (a nice visual trick courtesy of Gondry). But Chow is more than an action star. He has a great dry delivery that runs counter to Rogen's more in-your-face sense of humor, and the two counterbalance each other perfectly.

The other well-chosen addition to the movie is Inglourious Basterds' Christoph Waltz as the villainous Chudnofsky, a drug kingpin going through an identity crisis. He's genuinely concerned that he isn't threatening enough to run an empire and that he doesn't wear the right clothes to gain a terrifying reputation. It's an understated performance most of the time, and it works to move both the comedy and the plot forward. The film's weakest link is Britt's personal assistant Lenore (Cameron Diaz), who I'm pretty sure was added as a character simply to make sure that nobody thought the Green Hornet and Kato were gay. She doesn't add a thing to this movie once you move past the fact that she looks good in a tight skirt.

I'm still not sure I understand why Reid and Kato decide they need to pretend to be bad guys in order to fight crime effectively, but it doesn't really matter. The Green Hornet and Kato kick all sorts of corrupt ass with some truly great weaponry. And the final battle sequence inside the newsroom of the paper is pretty spectacular. You may get a bit weary of listening to Rogen say variations on "This is amazing!" every time Kato unveils a new element to the gorgeous Black Beauty car, but there is something inherently enjoyable about watching these two men get to know each other and learn to work as partners. An especially lengthy hand-to-hand fight scene between the two is one of the greatest rumbles of the year, but it also serves as a bonding experience for the pair. This is a more elaborate version of the way siblings tussle, and it makes them closer.

The Green Hornet is a great deal of fun as both a comedy and adventure film, and it takes the Goldberg-Rogen writing experience into yet another film genre (after covering coming-of-age films in Superbad and stoner comedies in The Pineapple Express). Some of this material was covered in Kick-Ass, but having grown men in costumes with no powers tackle bad guys is clearly their take on the Batman-style superhero film. I'd ask that you don't dismiss or trash the film until after you've seen it. If you don't like it, cool, but at least have an informed opinion in the month of January. I think you'll dig it.

To read my exclusive interviews with The Green Hornet screenwriter Evan Goldberg, director Michel Gondry, or star and co-screenwriter Seth Rogen, click on their names or go to Ain't It Cool News.

Another Year

Writer-director Mike Leigh (High Hopes, Secrets & Lies, Vera Drake, Happy-Go-Lucky) is as difficult to categorize as a filmmaker as his films are to categorize in a genre, so let's not try to, OK? All you need to know about Leigh, his movies, and the incredible actors he consistently gathers to work with him is that together they have created some of the greatest character studies in modern film history. And sometimes, Leigh can create a fully realized character with a single scene.

I challenge you to watch the opening scene in Leigh's latest work, Another Year. It's an interview between the film's female lead, a medical counselor played by Ruth Sheen, and a woman I might describe as the most pent-up, angry, miserable woman I've ever seen in any movie, played beautifully by Imelda Staunton. The scene is meant to establish the patience that Sheen's Gerri exercises every day at work, but your eyes never leave Staunton, seething under her permanent dark gray cloud. It's an incredible sequence, and Staunton's answers (and non-answers) to Sheen's questions tell you everything you need to know about her in about five minutes. You never see the character again, and you probably won't want to, but you'll never forget that woman.

While Another Year may, on the surface, appear to be about a year in the life of Gerri and her geologist husband Tom (the always-great Jim Broadbent), broken up across four segments taking place in each of the four seasons, the most interesting elements of the film are those around this happy couple. This is not a film about the cracks that exist in the most seemingly perfect marriage. No, this couple is precisely in tune thanks to their mutual love of home-cooked meals, gardening, and inviting friends over for dinner parties. But it's their friend Mary (Leslie Manville) who your eyes are helplessly drawn to every second she's on screen. And by the end of the film, your heart will become an open wound on her behalf.

Mary is a force of nature, the kind that blows into town, knocking over trees and unfortified buildings. She is by no means a bad person. In fact, at first, her whirlwind life and crazy stories about work or buying a new car or trying to meet men are quite funny. But as the film progresses, and Mary drinks her way through future meals, she almost accidentally falls for Tom and Gerri's grown son Joe (Oliver Maltman). In her slightly desperate fantasy world, she sees them dating soon, until the following season, when Joe brings home his new girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez). You can literally see the light die in Mary's eyes when the very sweet Katie enters the home. This moment coupled with an awkward encounter between Mary and a rather sickening old chum of Tom's puts Mary is a dark place. And that's only about the halfway point of the film, which goes into some touching moments as well as some lonely, sad places.

Another Year marks the passing of time not for the happy middle-aged couple at its center, but for their pensive friend who sees her life turning a corner. Her youthful clothes and spirit suddenly feel pathetic on her. Mary has heard her whole life that you're only as old as you feel, and this is the year where she feels exceptionally old. What Manville pulls off here is nothing short of extraordinary; it's one of the single greatest performances of the year (technically, last year). Leigh rightfully has complete confidence in his actors' abilities to inhabit these loving and warm characters, who must strip away their polite nature at times and strip down to their raw emotional selves. It's a painful process to watch sometimes, but so worth the journey. For those counting, Another Year landed at the number 15 spot on my Best of 2010 list and for good reason. Do not miss. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

The Illusionist

Having just experienced the work of French film genius Jacques Tati at the recent revival of his film Mon Oncle, my tastes were more than ready to embrace the animated adaptation of one of his unproduced screenplays, The Illusionist--a gentle, melancholy, often spirited work from director Sylvain Chomet (The Triplets of Belleville). The story centers on an aging magician (who looks suspiciously like Tati), who has been using the same bag of tricks for decades and drawing fewer and fewer crowds in the cities he can travel to that still have venues willing to book him. Along his journeys, he meets the young woman named Alice, whom he takes under his wing and looks our for. And while the magician is quite protective of Alice, life (and a handsome young man) intervenes.

Knowing that Tati wrote this story as a tribute to the father-daughter relationship should come as no surprise. In fact, it enhances to story. The hand-drawn animation is superb, and the detailed recreations of some of Europe's most beautiful cities is astonishing. I was equally moved by the tale of a fading artist, whose craft is no longer appreciated by the modern world. I can image sometimes those who produce hand-drawn animation might feel the same way sometimes. It's impossible to capture or recreate the true visual magic of Tati in an animated work, but as its own work of art, The Illusionist is a stunning, elegant achievement that might not resemble the animated works coming out of the studio system, but it shows a remarkable level of skill and beauty that any animator would look at with wonder. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Marwencol

I knew when I saw that director Jeff Malmberg's spellbinding documentary Marwencol won the best doc award at SXSW last year that I'd made a horrible mistake by missing it. Every so often the title would pop up on my radar at some festival or another, taking another prize from a jury or audience. But I deliberately ignored all of the synopsis of what the film was about; sometimes, it's OK to do that with films--go into them completely ignorant to their story. It's the purest form of discovery in my line of work. What I was met with upon watching the film was the tale of a mild-mannered man named Mark Hogancamp, a one-time illustrator and full-time alcoholic who was savagely beaten by a group of men outside a bar where he'd been getting drunk. As a result of the attack, Mark's memory and most of his motor skills were erased and had to be relearned. His memories never returned, so all he has are photos and records of his life before the fight.

In a strange form of self-therapy (he attended more routine therapy as well), Mark began creating the most epic worlds you can imagine using G.I. Joes, Barbie dolls, and his skills as a carpenter and photographer to tell elaborate stories using characters he'd imagined. Most of his set up take place during World War II in the fictional Belgian town of Marwencol, where Mark meticulously poses his dolls, takes photographs of them, and goes on to the next moment in the scene. The resulting images tell a story as vibrantly as any comic book or storyboard, and listening to Mark spin his yarns is to hear a man still not fully recovered from the brutality that was forced upon him. His self esteem barely exists, and his ability to connect with women is a daily struggle. But the version of himself in Marwencol is a heroic (non-drinking) soldier who has a way with the ladies and a plan to defeat the bullying enemies.

Mark's photographs captured the attention of New York galleries that wish to showcase his work. The result is a tense few weeks leading up to the opening, with the largely anti-social Hogancamp revealing something else about himself that not only explains what sparked the beating but also what Mark does to relieve the tension in his life. There's no denying that Hogancamp is a true artist. His wartime re-creations are moving and life like, bordering on haunting. They speak to the violence and sexual frustrations that plague Mark everyday, and Marwencol is an unforgettable portrait that never drifts into sentimentality. There is, simply put, no other story quite like that of Mark Hogancamp, and this film captures his life and ability to overcome with a plain-spoken, easily communicated method. The film is as devastating as it is divine. Prepare to be wowed. It opens for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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