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Column Fri Feb 11 2011
Before I dive into this week's offerings. Let me remind everyone that on Friday, February 11 and Saturday, February 12, I will be moderating Q&A with the legendary Tommy Wiseau after screenings of his cult hit The Room at the Music Box Theatre. Both shows begin at 10pm, and we may even have some surprises in store for those who already bought tickets. This event marks the one-year anniversary of Wiseau's first appearance in Chicago, and believe me when I say, the best way to see The Room is with an audience during the film and Wiseau in the house after it.
But here's the catch. Both 10pm shows are sold out. However, the Music Box has just added a 7pm show on Saturday, and you should get your tickets now. Don't get left outside of The Room!
This one comes a whole lot closer to nailing it than I thought it would, and the one of the key elements that holds it back is that damned PG-13 rating. From Jeremy Brock's screenplay based on Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth, this story of a Roman soldier in 2nd century Britain crossing into British-controlled territory to retrieve a golden eagle emblem of his dead father's legion is practically crying out to let the blood flow, and perhaps the DVD of The Eagle will allow director Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland, State of Play) to include a few graphic beheadings and eviscerations to keep his gritty story more lively. (If you crave a sword-and-sandal movie with blood to spare, please rent Neil Marshall's Centurion; it's so damn good.) Still, as it exists now, The Eagle is a decent telling of an interesting story.
Channing Tatum, an actor I'm still trying to determine whether can really act, plays Marcus Aquila, the son of a legendary Roman soldier best known for leading the Ninth Legion into battle and losing the aforementioned emblem. Marcus is a brave and winning soldier, but his career and life is held back because of his father's misfortune, and when given the opportunity after being severely injured during a particularly nasty skirmish, he decides to go through Hardrian's Wall that serves as the border between Roman and British territory of Caledonia to retrieve The Eagle. He takes with him British-born slave Esca (Jamie Bell), whose life Marcus saved. Not surprisingly, Esca is none too happy with being a slave, but since he owes Marcus his life, he leads him into the British lands as a guide.
In a way, The Eagle is Marcus' Odyssey with each new scene being another test of sorts for the two men. They are tested as fighters, but also their loyalty to protecting each other is pushed to the limits, especially when they finally come upon the Seal people (led by a prince played by Tahar Rahim). Esca's native tribe is friends with the Seal, and in order to keep Marcus alive, they must pretend that it is in fact Marcus who is the slave. It's in these scenes that the always-squirrelly Bell gets to shine as he takes on the role of the stern master to a slave that is roughly three times his size.
The Eagle has a few pretty solid, although largely bloodless, action sequences. But I was more impressed with the story of the journey. Along the way, they encounter Guern (the ever-present and always-reliable Mark Strong), a former member of the Ninth who managed to escape death and carve out a meager life for himself by posing as a Briton. He is one of the few links Marcus has to his father's mysterious fate.
It's tough for me to throw my full recommendation behind The Eagle, but there's enough here to give it my marginal approval. The film feels like it's always holding back, and as a result it never really soars the way it should. Still, I think the cast is strong, and I will give Tatum credit here for playing a character who has had the emotion basically trained out of him. He still gets worked up over the disappearance of his father's legion, but that's the soldier in him. I especially liked the interplay between Marcus and Esca; a great deal of the time, it's all that keeps this movie afloat. There are other films opening this week that I'll recommend more highly, but The Eagle isn't bad.
I really love this movie. And it's not because it's the funniest movie in years or has the most clever story imaginable. I loved Cedar Rapids because it's so damn lovable. There's a sweetness and vulnerability to these characters, even in their raunchiest moments, that propels them right into your heart. In the capable hands of director Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Chuck & Buck, Youth In Revolt), things never get too glossy or saccharine in this tale of a small-town Wisconsin insurance salesman for Brownstar Insurance, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms of "The Office" and The Hangover), who is forced to leave his self-imposed isolation to travel to the "big city" of Cedar Rapids, Iowa for an insurance convention.
The film's biggest saving grace is Helms' portrayal of Tim, whom he plays not as some rube from the sticks, but as a man whose difficult childhood and upbringing have made it easier for him to never leave his hometown. Tim is no innocent, however. He's having a torrid love affair with a divorced older woman, a former teacher of his played by Sigourney Weaver. But Tim is the kind of guy who doesn't have sex with a woman; he makes love. The idea of casual sex is completely foreign to him. His boss (Stephen Root) decides Tim needs to take this trip and win the coveted Two Diamonds award (which the company has won many years running) after the death of a co-worker (Thomas Lennon) due to rather tawdry circumstances.
In some senses, one could look at Cedar Rapids as the story of a man losing his idealism and becoming more of a realist. In another sense, Tim is so pure and good hearted that his idealism rubs off on the cynics that surround him at the conference, including the party animal Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), whose gregarious ways are the product of a failed marriage. Tim finds himself uncharacteristically drawn to Joan (the compelling Anne Heche), a married woman and mother of two who uses this annual event to cheat on her husband rather than break up the family. She doesn't come across as predatory in her mild-mannered pursuit of Tim, but she's clearly taken aback by his kindness before and after their tryst. The fourth musketeer in the group is Ronald Wikles (played by Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), and the less said about his character and a running joke involving his character, the better the experience of seeing the film will be. But let it be known that Whitlock is my new hero and the breakout performance of the movie.
Others in the strong supporting cast include Kurtwood Smith as Orin, the head of the insurance association throwing the conference. He and Tim have a very tender and very naked moment in the gym locker room, but he is also the man that stands between Tim and the Two Diamonds Award. And I was especially fond of the character of Bree ("Arrested Development's" Alia Shawkat), as a prostitute who trolls the hotel parking lot and befriends Tim when he compromises himself to secure the award. The two go on a bender of monumental proportions that would make Helms' Hangover cast members proud.
In Arteta's hands, each character has a reason for acting as responsibly or irresponsibly as they do, and Phil Johnston's script isn't afraid to give each player dark corners of their personalities to explore and get lost in. There are a great deal of laughs, but that isn't the filmmaker's only mission. That's a trademark of most of Arteta's films, and I think it's what separates him from many of the best-known comedy directors working today. These people are not parodies, but a close approximation of real people in believable situations. You don't just expect them to succeed; you want them to. Cedar Rapids is a simple story, but one with depth and unafraid to tap into genuine emotion on occasion. I think this one is going to pleasantly surprise you.
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
I'm not saying I approve, but now I understand. In fact, I'll even throw out this little challenge for those of you who like to take a chance on something: I dare you to check out this documentary/concert film about 16-year-old pop superstar Justin Bieber and not like him just a little bit more than you do now. I'm in no way implying that you'll like his music more, but just the kid, who has undeniably worked his scrawny little tail off to get where he is like he was trying to set a land-speed record.
In the interest of full disclosure, I know absolutely nothing about Bieber, his upbringing, or how he became so famous so fast. I've never heard one of his songs from start to finish, and what snippets I have heard never impressed me as being anything more than entry-level, sanitary bubblegum pop. I don't hold any animosity toward Bieber. In fact, the few times I've seen him on television, including appearance on "Saturday Night Live" and some things on MTV, I thought the kid had a pretty good self-effacing sense of humor about himself. I feel confident that I walked into this movie with an open mind, ready to learn what all the fuss was about.
The film, Never Say Never, is straight-up propaganda — let me make that perfectly clear, not that there was any doubt in anyone's mind that it would be. But there are some facts about this young Canadian boy's life that you can't make up or spin to make him any more like the good guy that everyone in this movie — fan, friend or family — makes him out to be. I admire the fact that he and his handlers (including mom Pattie and manager Scott Braun) chose to keep Bieber off the Nickelodeon or Disney assembly line that churns out teen singing stars, complete with TV series and an army of publicists and life coaches that attempt to keep their brood from any scandal.
I was especially interested in Bieber's early childhood, during which he displayed an eerie ability to play drums although his tiny hands could barely hold the sticks. And his ability to sing and the tonal quality of his voice was pretty undeniable. He was also a solid vocal and dancing mimic, and had a great affection for singing R&B hits just like the original artists, but with his high-pitched voice. Raised by his single mom and grandparents, Bieber gained genuine fame thanks to a series of YouTube videos posted by his mom so that other family members could see what he was up to at various singing competitions. And before long, hundreds of thousands of viewers saw this little kid sing recently charted tunes. Through interviews with mom, Braun, stylist and friend Ryan Good, vocal coach Mama Jan Smith, as well as industry types who supported Bieber's rise (including mentor Usher and label head L.A. Reid), we learn all the necessary details about how to go from mall concerts and state fairs to selling out Madison Square Garden in one year.
The one thing that is noticeably absent from Never Say Never is Bieber's voice. I don't mean his singing voice — there's plenty of that. Endless footage of Bieber performing on stage, rehearsing, interacting with fans, and generally being a goofy kid in front of the camera populates most of the film's running time. What seems weirdly absent is a sit-down interview with Bieber, in a style that everyone who comes into his gravitational pull seems to get.
The entire film is a countdown to the MSG show, and just days before, Bieber's strained and inflamed vocal chords threaten to force the show's postponement. I would have loved to know what he had to say about that time. Alas, we get footage of him visiting the doctor, people talking about the situation, and footage of him clearly anxious and upset. But he stays largely silent during this period, so the conflict going on in his head stays under one of his many hooded sweatshirts. The drama is also slightly undercut since footage from the MSG concert is scattered throughout the film, so we know there's no chance the show isn't happening.
The show itself is pretty solid, big-production fare. It was still tough for me get around the fact that the music is so painfully average, and even on-stage appearances from the likes of Usher, Ludacris, Jaden Smith and Boys II Men don't really help matters. That said, a sultry duet with Miley Cyrus spices things up a lot more than I believe was legally allowed for either of their ages at the time.
There's a moment in the film when manager Braun tells the story of Justin and him sitting at an awards show where Michael Jackson was being honored by Madonna. When she mentioned that Jackson's childhood had been effectively stolen from him, Bieber turned to Braun (according to Braun) and said, "Don't let that happen to me." That's a shockingly telling moment, and a story that would have been better suited if Bieber had relayed it himself and explained how he was leading his life in a way that he wouldn't forget to be a kid every once and a while.
Aside from this rather glaring omission, I found most of Never Say Never fascinating and yes, at times, entertaining. Even the 3D, which really only brings to life the concert scenes, is strong, even if it is unnecessary. I'm sure down the line, Bieber's music will improve, his voice will change, and the fanaticism surrounding him will die down, if not outright subside. Has Justin Bieber lived enough of a life to warrant a movie about him in the first place? Probably not, but this kid has been doing a version of this since he was barely old enough to walk, so what the hell do I know? Whether you consider watching this film a sociological experiment or perhaps an endurance test, Never Say Never captures the curiosity that is Justin Bieber quite effectively. I won't go so far as to say you should see it, but if you find yourself forced to see it this weekend, you could do a lot worse.
Before he died last September, the great French director of mysteries and thrillers, Claude Chabrol, had announced that Inspector Bellamy, staring Gerard Depardieu as Paul Bellamy, would be his last feature. His announcement and his passing marked a major loss for French cinema, as Chabrol has delivered some exceptional works in his long career, including The Unfaithful Wife, Le Beau Serge, À double tour, Les Cousins, Le Boucher, The Blood of Others, Madame Bovary, La Cérémonie and so many others. There's no getting around the fact that Inspector Bellamy was lesser Chabrol. Still, all of the earmarks of his best works are on display, and it was a wonderful thing that Chabrol and Depardieu made a film together for the first time.
On the surface, this is the story of a well-known police commissioner's attempt to have a relaxing vacation with his wife (Marie Bunel). But Bellamy is all too willing to allow the outside world to invade his wife's provincial family home, when a case involving a dead body found in a burned out car wreck literally comes knocking on his door. To make matters worse, Bellamy invites his abrasive and abusive brother (Clovis Cornillac) to stay with them for a time. While the case is the film's primary focus, the real drama of the film involves Bellamy dealing with his disappointed wife, who simply wants the couple to enjoy some downtime, and his thieving, con artist of a brother, who has been feeling like second fiddle to Paul since they were kids (with different fathers).
Jacques Gamblin plays a character whose identity should probably not be revealed here, but when he arrives at the inspector's home seeking protection, he sets off a chain reaction of events that involve a wife (Jacques Gamblin) and mistress (Vahina Giocante), neither of whom seem particular distressed at his going missing. But the real pleasure of Inspector Bellamy is sitting back and watching these great French masters ply their craft as elegantly as they have for decades. It may not be their finest work, but that in no way removes the enjoyment of viewing their work together. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.
Recently Oscar nominated in the Best Documentary category, Waste Land is the spirit-lifting chronicle of Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz, who traveled back back to his homeland to document the lives of "pickers" at Jardim Gramancho, the world's largest landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro. The pickers are an integral part of the city and nation's recycling efforts, but it is also grueling and sometimes dangerous work as men and women of all ages trail behind each new dump truck unloading waste materials onto the mammoth pile. Muniz typically uses as his medium discarded materials of all kinds, so this project seemed especially appropriate for his work. He hand selected a few especially interesting people as his subjects, photographed them, projected the images onto a giant canvas, and had the pickers come in and recreate the image using recyclables. Then he photographed the resulting work, and took them to an auction house in London, giving the proceeds of the pieces to the pickers, often changing the lives of these people forever.
Directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, Waste Land digs deep into the lives of Muniz's subjects, showing the tight-knit community they have developed on the job. Their stories will make you weep openly, more for what they have overcome and their sheer willpower than because of anything sad in their lives. And when the subjects all get to attend the unveiling of the collection at Rio's most prestigious art gallery, they become the talk of the town, if only for one night. Heartwarming doesn't even begin to describe it.
I've been so conditioned over the years to look for the villains in most documentaries that it was refreshing to watch a film front loaded with kindness and generosity. I suppose you could look at the conditions in and around Rio as the enemy, or the lack of any recycling program. But if there were one, these wonderful people would be out of a job. Perhaps the most moving moment in Waste Land are the end titles that inform us what Muniz's subjects are up to today. There's a discussion at one point in the film about whether involving the pickers in the creation of the art or bringing them to the opening has given them too much hope, and that maybe when they realize they have to return to their old lives, it could be too much to handle. But the closing titles tell a different story. I'll let you discover that chapter in their lives. Waste Land is well deserving of its nomination. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.