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Column Fri Feb 18 2011

I Am Number Four, Unknown, Kaboom, And Everything Is Going Fine & Oscar Shorts

I Am Number Four

For the most part, I dig the way director D.J. Caruso works. He game out of the gate with a few interesting films, including The Salton Sea, Taking Lives and Two for the Money. Each of these films was a little on the slick side, but within tolerable limits. He also did a handful of really solid episodes of "The Shield," which gives him points in my book. But the two films he made with Shia LaBeouf — Disturbia and Eagle Eye — didn't really connect with me. They are certainly well-executed movies, but I felt like they were talking down to the audience, over-explaining the plot, and having the characters jump through hoops that smarter folks might not have felt the need to jump through. His latest effort, the sci-fi adventure story I Am Number Four, (based on the novel by "Pittacus Lore") has some great action sequences, and a couple of nice performance (especially by Timothy Olyphant), but I found a tough time connecting with the lead characters or really caring about what happened to the young man at the center of the story.

We know right off the bat that people are out to kill John Smith (Alex Pettyfer), the fourth in a line of special young men and women (I won't say how, but most of you probably know already) with powers that make them stand out. Apparently, these special kids must be killed in the order in which they are numbered, so the film begins with the death of Number 3. John is one of those annoying-as-hell teens who doesn't like to do what he's told and frequently ignore the safety protocols set up by his protector Henri (Olyphant), who is posing as John's father. I'm not sure why they feel the need to send John to public school in Ohio, but that's where he lands when his original location is compromised. Let's not forget that high school is the land of cell phone cameras and self-created websites where John's image could be posted and scanned for by those pursuing him.

John also sees his powers fully manifest, takes on the school bully, gets a sorta girlfriend ("Glee's" Dianna Agron), makes friends with the school geek (Callan McAuliffe), whose life is more intertwined with John's than either of them first realizes. Meanwhile, monstrous creatures are on the prowl and Henri is having a tough time keep John from being too visible, and this bothered me from a purely plot-based perspective. John is a selfish shit, who doesn't really care about putting his life or the lives of others at risk, and I had an impossible time connecting with him. OK, fine, he's supposed to be a teenager with a rebellious streak, and that I get. But he has lived this way literally for his entire life, and he comes across as a pretty boy with a death wish, which I'm fairly certain is not the intention.

I was also a little disappointed at how much like other films about mutants or other people with special powers I Am Number Four turned out to be. The characters here are nearly interchangeable with those is something like Push or "Heroes." Most of the teen characters are paint-by-numbers stereotypes. I particularly loved that the filmmakers attempt to make the very pretty Argon a outcast at the school; nice try. The producer of this movie is Michael Bay, and his fingerprints are all over the place, which is a good and bad thing. Special effects and action are given priority over character building and acting.

This is why Olyphant stands out as being so good here, because he's the only one who is looking at the entire situation and trying to give it weight. He adds a much-needed warmth to the proceedings. In the end, I stopped caring early on, and nothing about this lightweight bit of fluff ever really pulled me back in. As I said, the action scenes are great, and if that's all you require from a film, you'll probably have a blast. I needed something to care more about these people before I cared about their predicament. This one is a closer call than I thought it would be, but in the end I can't get behind I Am Number Four.


I'm baffled by people who can watch a trailer or commercial for Liam Neeson's new film Unknown and think it looks like Taken. Other than both of them being shot in European nations, they don't look anything like each other or bear any resemblance plotwise. But even if they did, would that be a bad thing? Taken is an awesome movie, and you know what? Unknown is not so bad either, although it essentially craps out in the final 30 minutes with a rather disappointing conclusion. And I say that I liked it for the most part even though I had the film's many surprises figured out very early on.

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a botanist traveling to Berlin with his wife (January Jones) for a major conference. When he arrives at their hotel, he realizes that he's left his briefcase at the airport and jumps back in a taxi to retrieve it. The driver, Gina (Diane Kruger), inadvertently sends the vehicle into a river, but she manages to rescue the doctor, who has suffered a major concussion that puts him in the hospital for four days in a coma. When he wakes up, Martin remembers who he is but wonders why his wife has not come looking for him. He checks himself out, goes to the hotel, where he finds her with another man (Aidan Quinn) claiming to be Dr. Harris, with all of the supporting documents to prove it.

Obviously confused, Martin seeks out the taxi driver as well as a private investigator (the great Bruno Ganz) to find out what exactly is happening and who this other man is pretending to be him. Also making a third-act appearance is the doctor's old friend, played by Frank Langella, who always adds a semblance of "everybody take a breath" calm to everything. The story is outrageous from the start, and it just gets all the more so by the end, but it's a fun kind of crazy most of the time.

Directed by Spanish-born Jaume Collet-Serra (House of Wax, Orphan), Unknown is basically an exercise in when you decide to call bullshit as layer upon layer of plot are piled onto a fairly simple premise. And the strata go deep with this one. But Neeson is one of today's stabilizing force masters, and as long as you keep your eyes on him, you'll probably dig most of this movie. It comes as no surprise that Kruger (Inglourious Basterds, the National Treasure films) and Ganz (Wings of Desire, The Reader, Downfall — you know all those YouTube clips of Hitler getting mad about different things? That's Ganz) act circles around their American counterparts. But it helps that the German characters are given a whole lot more to do than simply deny that they know Martin. I'm not of the opinion that January Jones is much of an actress, but she's given almost nothing to do to prove her talent one way or the other.

I don't want to dig too deep into the plot, but some of the film's most enjoyable moments occur once Martin gets a better sense of what exactly is going on and who's on his side. But the film goes from being a tight action-thriller-mystery with a couple of great car chases to a complete and utter mess loaded with exposition taking the place of actual plot. I'm still moderately recommending Unknown because most of it is entertaining, however unlikely. Most days, I thank the movie gods that Liam Neeson doesn't seem to know how to turn down a role.


I'm not sure I could pass on a test on what writer-director Gregg (Mysterious Skin, Smiley Face, The Doom Generation) Araki's latest is actually about, but it seems to be a thesis on young people and nihilism, which is ironic since most young people don't think they can die. Or maybe Araki is marking a change in that worldview, in that, we live in a world where young people no longer believe they are indestructible. Maybe between disease, terrorism, school shootings, and all of the other ways to die unexpectedly, even our free and easy youth see their demise as a real possibility and are living life like they just don't give a fuck. Or perhaps Kaboom is just a fun romp about stopping the end of the world. Or maybe it's both.

However you slice it, Kaboom is a kinetic marvel from the always interesting and often quite funny Araki who tells the story of gay college student Smith (Thomas Dekker from the remake of A Nightmare On Elm Street), who has visions and dreams that seem to come true and sees people in them that he has yet to meet but does. He has a straight, surfer-dude roommate that he lusts after, and a female best friend named Stella (Haley Bennett), who has a brief but passionate affair with a witch. Smith sometimes sleeps with women, like the sexually aggressive nympho London (Juno Temple), but never fails to have at least one male crush as well. And if all of this is sounding a bit driven by sex, Kaboom is definitely that.

Somehow in the course of the film, the often drug-fueled Smith and his friends discover a secret society that seems determined to make sure the end of the world happens right on time. But is any of this really a threat to humanity or just running the very serious risk of killing Smith's buzz? It's certainly a fun ride finding out. What Araki never fails to do is keep things moving and put forth a film that is spirited, colorful, and shows us a world we've never experienced before he's kicked open the door to it. There's a wonderful naivety to Kaboom, despite its debauchery, and it's extremely easy to get caught up in pulsating rhythms of the film. At its core, this movie is about death, and all of the messed-up stuff we are capable of when we're staring death in the face (or at least think we are).

It's pretty much impossible to get bored during any Gregg Araki film, but Kaboom is something special, disturbing, thrilling, and, as is typical for Araki, dangerous. It opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

And Everything Is Going Fine

Despite my admiration and outright love for so many writers, directors, actors and other creative persons in the world, I don't think a celebrity death hit me harder than when Spalding Gray committed suicide in 2004. Perhaps the world's finest monologist, Gray was one of the first famous people that I ever took it upon myself to just walk up to on the street and introduce myself because I honestly needed to. Gray came to Chicago with a new monologue every two years or so, and listening to him update his life story, sitting behind a plain wooden desk with a notebook on it, was like catching up with an old friend.

He told his audiences stories about his health (both mental and physical), his career, his love life (it got pretty shocking at times), his parents, his spiritual beliefs, and his phobias (there were many). I think his biggest phobia was the fear of sitting still for too long. Gray lived life as much as he feared it, and the plain and simple truth is that no one could weave a story together the way he can. In my lifetime, I saw Gray perform 12-15 times, not just with his monologues but with his recurring shows like "A Personal History of American Theater" and "Interviewing the Audience," which I probably saw him perform a half-dozen times because I knew each show would be different.

The last time I saw him perform, he did this show, where he would mingle with the crowd before the show, talk to people who looked like they might have interesting stories, take a few notes, and move on the next person. Then, the most interesting people, he would invite on stage and begin the conversation. He was scheduled to return to Chicago early the following year to revive his most famous monologue "Swimming To Cambodia," documenting his time shooting his supporting role in The Killing Fields. The revival would have been the first time Gray had ever revisited an old monologue, and he wasn't sure how he felt about it. The performances never happened.

I know I'm rambling a bit, but this is the first time I've written about Gray since his death, and it's bringing forth so many memories of talking to him after a show, at a book reading/signing, and once just running into him on the streets of Chicago. So imagine my thrill when I caught wind that one of the directors I admire most in the world — one who had directed Gray more than once (in King of the Hill and the film monologue Gray's Anatomy) — was putting together a documentary about Gray's life. I couldn't imagine what Steven Soderbergh's take on Gray would be, but I had confidence that he would capture Gray's spirit, lust for collecting experiences, and devotion to the spoken word.

Through some genius editing and a fierce devotion to creating a autobiography using Gray's own words, Soderbergh and editor Susan Littenberg have pieced together Gray's final monologue from filmed performance and a few interviews. The result is a chronological telling of Gray's life with a suicidal Christian Scientist mother, through his various relationships, career twists and turns, the perils of becoming a parent in your 50s, and the near-death he experienced in a car accident in Ireland, from which he never fully recovered. Much like Gray's own performances, the film is a tight 90 minutes, and Soderbergh gets in all of the essentials, including a great story of Gray in his first Broadway acting gig in Our Town (which happened to be the first Broadway show I ever went to; I will never forget his portrayal of the Stage Manager, a part that seemed written for his unique abilities) involving an ill fellow actor.

With And Everything Is Going Fine, Soderbergh forgoes interviews with friends, family or famous people that Gray worked with in his acting work. Gray is allowed to deliver the monologue he never got to give. I couldn't help but consider the story he might have told had he not committed suicide, or the monologue he would tell from beyond the grave. Yes, I do think about these things. I also think about the new discoveries he would have made as his children grew up (his son Forrest provides the film's original music, which kind of breaks my heart). But more than anything, the film allows us to experience Gray's voice one last time. Soderbergh manages to both celebrate Gray's boundless search for meaning in life while paying sweet and gentle tribute to his friend — our friend, for those of us devoted followers. Even if you've never seen Gray's work, I think you'll get a kick out of his crazy adventures and damaged upbringing. I still miss you, Spuddy. I want to thank Steven Soderbergh for giving us this lovely remembrance. The film opens today for a weeklong engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Please don't miss it.

Oscar Shorts

I love that it has become an annual certainty that the collected nominees for Best Animated Short and Best Live Action Short are packaged and released just before the Oscars. I haven't decided if actually seeing these films helps me make my Oscar picks or not, but I love seeing them.

Most of you have probably seen the animated offering Day and Night since it was on the front of Toy Story 3 this past summer. I think this Pixar short is one of the most inventive the studio has ever released, and it continues their tradition of dialogue-free shorts before their incredible features. Let's Pollute is a cleverly constructed history of pollution story but told as if environmental regulation are a huge pain in the ass and that it's every American's duty to pollute and otherwise be wasteful with resources. Perhaps the most visually interesting of this year's bunch is Madagascar Carret de Voyage, featuring a variety of animation styles forming a scrapbook-like story (receipts and ticket stubs often serve as the border of the frame) of a young Frenchman's travels through Africa. The artistic styles are as vibrant as the land itself, and the story culminates with the traveler attending a funeral.

The Gruffalo features the voices of Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltraine and Tom Wilkinson, among others, and tells the story of a mouse living in the woods trying not to get eaten by all of the other animals that also live there. It's a cute bedtime story, but I'm not convinced it's Oscar worthy. My favorite animated short is Australia's The Lost Thing, about a boy who finds an unidentifiable object on the beach. It looks like a tentacled creature with a metal body, and it's huge. But the boy takes it in as a pet. I loved the story's moral about finding a place for things that aren't familiar or like everything else; I also dug the idea that there are some people in the world who can see the unusual things that surround us, while the rest of us just go through our days with blinders on.

As for the live action shorts, The Confession from the UK is about two school boys in Catholic school who are on the verge of their first confessions. They don't like the fact that they've never really done anything worth confessing, so they decide to commit a little mischief that has horrifying consequences. This great little piece actually gets quite dark by the end. Ireland's The Crush is about another young school boy with a crush on his attractive teacher. What starts out cute and sweet devolves into something slightly terrifying when the teacher gets engaged, and the boy challenges the husband to be to a duel. America's God of Love concerns a nerdy jazz singer in love with his female drummer. He prays to God for her to love him, but instead he receives a box of "love darts," which apparently make you fall in love with the first person you look at after getting "stung" for six hours. Sometimes after the six hours, you stay in love; sometimes not. It's a clever set-up, but the most interesting part of the short are the discussions about the nature of love and what these arrows are taking away from the natural process.

Nawewe from Belgium is deadly serious almost from the beginning, when a group of mostly Africans traveling in a bus are held up by armed soldiers trying to separate the Tutsis and Hutus. This is a such a tense work, as the soldiers go through the occupants one by one, and we find out the stories of each passenger regarding their often-complicated ethnic makeup. This is the kind of short that usually wins awards. Just a little tip there. The Live Action shorts are rounded out by Wish 143, probably my favorite, about a 16-year-old boy dying of cancer who is given a Make-A-Wish-type opportunity before he dies. Naturally, he wants to lose his virginity before he goes, but he also wants it to be with the right girl. The story is quite touching as his search leads him to some dark places. Leave it to his friend, a priest, to find him someone unexpected and perfect for the boy.

With so many great filmmakers getting their start making short films, it's well worth the effort to find a theater near you playing these separate programs. If you want to pick just one, go with the live action shorts for the pure and simple reason that it's a stronger collection. Both programs open today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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John Boland / February 18, 2011 9:44 AM

Thank you for your wonderful words about Spalding and the Doc. You were indeed fortunate to have seen him that many times. Perhaps write about each and every experience. I'd like to edit out the piece on Spalding and add to the site.
Please write me with permission. You of course get full credit and any links you want. Best to use Contact on the site.

Curtis / February 18, 2011 1:24 PM

It’s entirely misleading to connect the mental breakdowns and suicide
of Spalding Gray’s mother with Christian Science. She may have
investigated the religion just like she may have checked out books
from the library on subjects like photography or gardening. But none
of this can rightfully be connected with her suicide. Christian
Science has the sole purpose and effect of helping a suffering
humanity find some healing and hope in this world. Obviously, this can
be difficult for many people to do, given the case of these films.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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