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Column Fri Aug 26 2011

Our Idiot Brother, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness & Phunny Business

Our Idiot Brother

I know a lot of people like to begin their assessments of certain films by saying "If you don't love this movie, you have no soul," or "...there's something damaged inside of you," or "...I can't be friends with you anymore." You get the drift. And although the new film from director Jesse Peretz, Our Idiot Brother, is far from the best film or even the best comedy of the year so far, it's so inherently likable that to not allow yourself to be charmed is actually a criminal act. The film also provides us with one of the best examples of how once tight-knit families become dysfunctional and then rally in times of crisis.

The heart and soul contained in Our Idiot Brother is palpable, and it comes from nearly all of the family relations of one Ned (Paul Rudd), a sweet, trusting, naive hippie who is far from idiotic. And it's his trusting nature that gets him tossed into jail for several month for selling weed to a uniformed cop. When he's released, he returns to his organic farm, his dog (named, although not played by, Willie Nelson), and his fickle girlfriend (played by one of my favorites, Kathryn Hahn), who has already moved onto a new man (the very funny T.J. Miller). As a result, Ned is forced to move in with his mom while he tries to find a job and a permanent residence--conditions set forth by his parole officer (Sterling Brown).

After feeling slightly confined with mom, Ned decides to take one of his three sisters, Liz (Emily Mortimer), up on her offer to stay with her family, including her documentary filmmaker husband Dylan (Steve Coogan, in perfect rancid asshole mode) and son River (Matthew Mindler). By being a good and trusting listener and perhaps a bit too free with private information, Ned manages to wear out his welcome with Liz and his other two sisters, Vanity Fair writer Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) or lesbian stand-up comic Natalie (Zooey Deschanel). In a short space of time, Ned inadvertantly wrecks a marriage, a lesbian partnership, and a career, all the while pining for his dog that his old girlfriend refuses to return.

Just to be clear, Our Idiot Brother is not a wacky screwball comedy where Ned is running around spilling the beans on family secrets, schrugging his shoulders, smiling, and saying, "Ooops!" There are a few moments of genuine heartbreak and drama here that make a lot of what happens in the plot seem plausible and devastating. The movie is nearly always funny, but when it chooses to slip in a degree of seriousness, it doesn't feel forced. Often, it enhances the comedy by giving us human characters that we're actually about to care about and identify with. Perhaps the film's most impressive feat is that it rarely achieves its R-rated laughs with vulgar humor or the impulse to put people down. Sure, the sisters call Ned an idiot from time to time, but they eventually realize the error of their ways.

The key to the success of Our Idiot Brother is the relationships, and there are a lot of them even beyond what transpires between the siblings. I loved the conversations Miranda's neighbor (Adam Scott) has with Ned. These two were meant to watch the director's cut of Dune on cable together. Or the lesbified Rashida Jones as Natalie's lawyer partner, who has to put with his Natalie's slightly slutty past (with men and women). Or the way T.J. Miller's character empathizes with Ned's battles with his ex. And god bless Shirley Knight, who plays the siblings' mom, always with a glass of wine in her hand and some sage advice for her kids.

A kind of clarity and strength emerges from the rubble that Ned has causes, and Our Idiot Brother is a celebration of messed-up families that care enough about each other to sweep aside the bullshit to help one another. It's the best movie of the week for sure, and a great way to close out an unusually strong summer of R-rated comedies. And if you tell me Our Idiot Brother didn't do it for you, I'll kick your ass from here to Peoria. Now go see it.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Is it possible that a movie designed to scare the bejeezus out if you can still be a quality work even without that many scares? I wouldn't have thought so before seeing the Guillermo del Toro produced and co-written (with Matthew Robbins) Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a re-working of the 1973 made-for-TV movie that was broadcast in something of a hey-day for horror films on television. The production design is magnificent, the acting is flawless, and the rendering of the tiny monsters that terrorize little Sally (a phenomenal Bailee Madison) because they want to eat her teeth (and probably her soul while they're at it). And while are enough creep-filled moments to keep things fun, I only remember being truly scared a couple of times, but that didn't make me like the film any less because there's still a wonderful story and direction by newcomer Troy Nixey.

The film opens with an absolutely killer sequence set many years in the past where a man lures a maid into his basement, ties her up, and knocks out her teeth as a kind of gift to unseen evil demons. But they are not pleased since they specifically told him they needed children's teeth, and his punishment is pretty grotesque. Skip ahead to the present day when Sally arrives in the house, recently purchased by her architect father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). We find out that Sally has been living with her mother, who for whatever reason no longer wants her around, and this has clearly taken its toll on Sally's self-esteem. Kim is going out of her way to bond with Sally, but it's a losing battle. Alex is focused on his career and fixing up the house in time to show it off for a possible profile in an architecture magazine.

So Sally has this Gothic adventureland all to herself, and as she explores, she uncovers signs that there may be a dark presence buried deep beneath the property, so naturally, she does what she can to unleash it. It goes without saying that everything Sally hears and sees is doubted by her elders, and everything destructive that happens in the house is blamed on the girl and not her new, ghastly little friends. Director Nixey does a great job building the suspense at a pace that doesn't take too long, but doesn't feel rushed either. I like the way he hides the creatures or shows them only in glimpses of them at exactly the right moments.

Production designer Roger Ford does an astonishing job of creating this perfect home for exploring, and if I were a little kid, there's no way I could resist the temptation to open every door and walk up and down every set of ornate stairs. At some point in the film's final act, things go from being scary to be dangerous, and Madison does such a terrifically convincing job of turning from scared little girl (whose curiosity seems to trump even the most terrifying moments) to fighter against a force that is hell bent on killing her family.

I think it's fair to say that while my anxiety levels were certainly elevated watching Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I don't remember being especially spooked. Perhaps that's because this film feels more sophisticated in its approach to horror (as compared to something like the Paranormal Activity movies or Insidious, all of which I truly enjoyed), but that certainly doesn't across as arty or anything but pure entertainment. Tension and suspense are powerful tools, just as much as making us jump in our seats is. Push your expectations aside, and just allow the film to be what it is. I think you'll appreciate and enjoy it so much more doing so.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

I'm a little out of my element here, but I'll do my best with this review, which involves accessing my love of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. During the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, arguably one of the most challenging and transitional times in Jewish history, a Ukranian writer named Sholem Aleichem essentially invented a certain style of writing. Firstly, in an effort to keep the language alive, he wrote in Yiddish. Second, he plumbed the depth of Jewish culture and tradition and became the pre-eminent chronicler of the times for his people. One of the characters he created (and revisted) was Tevye the Dairyman, or Milkman, on which the musical was based.

The film Laughing in the Darkness is a fairly standard-issue documentary about a extraordinary thinker and writer, whose works I was utterly unfamiliar outside of this connection to Fiddler on the Roof. But to hear passages from his work and letters read by the likes of Peter Riegert, as well as hear about the impact his writings had on Jews at the time from experts and his granddaughter, breathes some real life into this story of a man who lived in fear and ill health for much of his adult life. One of the more fascinating section of the film deals with his moving to New York, where he was hailed as an icon until two of his plays landed in theaters at the same time, and were met with universal loathing. Jews in America had apparently moved on from thinking about the Old Country of eastern Europe and didn't want to be reminded of the life and hardships by Sholem Aleichem.

I found his entire story wonderful as it unfolds in director Joseph Dorman's work, narrated by Alan Rosenberg. Sometimes referred to as the Jewish Mark Twain (believe it or not their matter-of-fact storytelling is quite similar), Sholem Aleichem is portrayed in Laughing in the Darkness as a good family man, a defiant man, and an activist for such things as Yiddish (and not Hebrew) being the official Jewish language and other Zionist causes. He was a complex individual with a life that took him from rags to riches to rags, and naturally his greatest successes and acclaim came only after death. The film will likely be a kind of unveiling of a life for many of you, but it's clear after watching it that his influence continues to be felt today. Laughing in the Darkness is a quality bit of education, and it opens today at the Music Box Theatre and the Landmark Renaissance Place in Highland Park.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness director Joseph Dorman will appear for a Q&A at Landmark Renaissance Place on Friday, August 26 after the 4:45pm showing and Saturday, August 27 after the 7pm showing. He will also appear at the Music Box Theatre on Southport on Friday after the 7:20pm showing and Saturday after the 5pm showing.

Phunny Business

I'm going to plead complete and total ignorance on this bit of Chicago history, but I'm guessing a few of you might have heard of a little place on 1000 S. Wabash called All Jokes Aside, a black-owned comedy club that featured the absolute cream of the crop when it came to African-American stand-up (this was pre-Def Comedy Jam, mind you) and a place that launched many a career in its 10-year existence. What's almost as fascinating as the talent the venue drew was the exquisite establishment and the many who came up with the idea for it, Raymond Lambert, a former right-hand man to entrepreneur Chris Gardner (whose rags to riches story was turned into the film The Pursuit of Happiness, starring Will Smith) who got the idea to open a comedy club that featured black comics after a visit to L.A.'s Improv.

Knowing nothing about starting a business or comedy, Lambert did what any good business school will tell you to do: find a void in the marketplace and fill it. While Phunny Business is filled with early routines by the likes of Jamie Foxx, Bernie Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Mo'Nique, Laura Hayes, and Steve Harvey (whose current radio career began when he used to visist WGCI to promote his All Jokes Aside appearances and then refused to leave) among many others, the best moments in the film are the comics telling behind-the-scenes stories about Lambert rules for behavior, dress, dealing with hecklers, getting paid, sticking to one's time slot, and fraternizing with staff. But the fact remains, Lambert made millions by running his club like a professional business, with no comps, a parade of famous faces in the audience, and an air of sophistication to his establishment.

What's even more surprising about All Jokes Aside was that it was successful in a time when many of Chicago's comedy clubs were dying. In the end, good old-fashioned Chicago politics and racism is what killed All Jokes Aside when it attempted to move from the South Loop to a North Side (i.e., mostly white) neighborhood. Lambert is featured prominently throughout director John Davies film, but a series of reaction shots to the story being narrated by John Ridley, seem a little to cutesy, even for a film about comedy. The last thing this movie needs is Lambert (who is credited as the film's producer and writer) mugging for the camera; his interviews are plenty informative.

But simply watching this movie is to get a hilarious commentary of Chicago's modern black history. In the end, All Jokes Aside might have closed down anyway since black comedy become part of the mainstream and a separate venue wasn't required. Still, it's sad how the club went out with a whimper rather than a bang. Phunny Business is wildly entertaining, and it closes out this year Black Harvest Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center with a pair of performances on Saturday, Aug. 27 at 5:45pm; and Thursday, Sept. 1 at 7:30pm. Producer/writer Raymond Lambert and DP/editor Brian Kallies will be present for audience discussion at both screenings. Director/writer John Davies and Producer Ried Brody will join them for Thursday's closing-night screening, hosted by radio personality Brian Babylon.

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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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