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Column Fri Nov 04 2011

Tower Heist, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, Like Crazy, Le Havre, The Double & Urbanized

Tower Heist

I'll admit, there was a part of me that thought the latest from director Brett Ratner might actually have something to it, even if that something was Eddie Murphy's somewhat return to comedic form. But saddled with a PG-13 rating (in a role that is screaming to be set free by an R), a producer credit, and surprisingly little screen time, Murphy is at best slightly funnier than we've seen him in many years. All we actually get is Murphy yelling a whole lot and acting tough in a story that treats his character as something served on the side, rather than the main course.

Tower Heist seems like a fairly timely endeavor. The staff of a luxury Manhattan apartment building is swindled by one of the building's residents, a Wall Street tycoon played by Alan Alda, who is arrested by the FBI and held under house arrest while he awaits a court date. Initially, it appears Alda is friendly with the staff, led by building manager Josh (Ben Stiller), but when their entire pension fund vanishes, the staff turns against Alda.

Josh, along with fellow staffers played by Casey Affleck, Michael Peña, and Gabourey Sidibe, decide to break into the heavily secured building and steal all the money from the safe Josh believes is hidden in Alda's apartment. Matthew Broderick is also on hand as a recently evicted tenant who also entrusted his money with Alda. The theft seems all the more likely considering the unit is guarded by FBI agents (headed by Tea Leoni). And thus is the set-up to this poor man's (literally) Ocean's Eleven, without the logic and only about a third of the fun.

According to the press notes I got on Tower Heist, it took eight people to write this movie (I'm not sure they all get screen credit); hell, even Stiller's Greenberg writer-director Noah Baumbach got a crack at polishing this turd. The idea that it took that many people to concoct this movie boggles my mind almost as much as this ridiculous plot. Now I'm not saying that every film, especially heist films, that I see has to pass the logic test, but the good ones often do. For example, a great deal of the actual heist takes place hanging from window washer scaffolding outside the building during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, which passes right by the apartments. Yet not a single person on the street seems to notice any of the goings-on along one side of the building. I don't want to ruin the few surprises this film has, but one element of this sequence would have been impossible not to see from the street.

There was a great opportunity here to tell a story from a perspective that is rarely told on the big screen — the inner workings of a high-end apartment building. There are a few introductory scenes in Tower Heist in which Stiller is dealing what is clearly just another day in the office, but it's still mildly interesting how he juggles the needs of the filthy rich residents. But once the planning of the crime begins, things become standard-issue junk. Granted, having the would-be thieves be people that are hard-working folks just trying to get what belongs to them is a great twist. But when Stiller gets desperate for a working plan, he turns to a known criminal type in his neighborhood, Slide (Murphy), who must be bailed out of prison for starters.

Murphy manages to get off a few good lines here and there, but his performance is largely just scene after scene of him insulting Stiller (apparently they went to grade school together) and overplaying a role that might have benefited from a tad more dialing back. Murphy should have kept an eye on what Peña does in this movie as the dopey new doorman at The Tower. Peña is a fantastic, versatile actor who effortlessly bounces from drama to comedy (check out his small but excellent work in The Lincoln Lawyer to see him do a little of both). But between this role and the gangster part he pulled off in 30 Minutes or Less, he's having a great year in comedies.

A lot of what's wrong with Tower Heist might have been more easily forgiven if the heist itself was of any interest. There's something about it that's unique and original; I'll give it that. But man, do they drag out what is a borderline implausible theft and turn it into nothing. The filmmakers seem far more interested in the lame jokes than any fun we're supposed to get from the staff getting away with the impossible. And when the only thing you have to distract the security team at the building is a nudie magazine and the timing of the parade outside, you may be asking a bit too much from your audience to buy. It was certainly more than I was willing to accept.

Combine that with lackluster performances from the leads (although many of the supporting actors are funny), sideplots that go nowhere, and a lack of any interesting visual kick from Ratner, and what you're left with is a sad little movie trying to be an big-time action-comedy. Not this time, folks. Not even close. Tower Heist is a whole lot of people trying very hard to entertain and, for the most part, failing.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Attempting to explain why a Harold & Kumar movie is funny is perhaps the most daunting task I can think of. You either think an infant accidentally inhaling a massive amount of drugs and climbing on the ceiling is funny or you don't. No judgment if you don't think that scenario is hilarious, but if you can't see the humor you may need to seek medical attention to get that stick removed from your rectum. I went back and forth on this next statement for many days after seeing their latest adventure, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, but I'm pretty certain this is my favorite in the series because this film treats the lead characters as actual people with real problems and obstacles they must overcome before their lives can continue.

H&K Christmas takes place many years after the last movie, and the boys aren't friends any longer. Harold (John Cho) is now a married man living in the suburbs who is trying to have baby with his hot wife (Paula Garcés). Her very scary father (Danny Trejo) wants a big family Christmas, and will be sure to put the blame on Harold if everything isn't perfect. Kumar (Kal Penn) has essentially dropped off the radar. He lives alone, smokes a metric shit-ton of weed every day, and does very little socializing, except with his dealer (played in a great cameo by Patton Oswalt as a mall Santa in the opening scene). When a mysterious package lands on Kumar's doorstep addressed to Harold, he decides to find his old friend. And almost from the minute they lock eyes on each other, everything goes wrong, beginning when the tree that Trejo has brought to be decorated going up in flames.

The film could be called Harold & Kumar Go Looking for a Tree, but that doesn't have quite the zip of the actual title. But in fact, that's what they spend the duration of the film doing — looking for a replacement tree while the in-laws are at midnight mass in New York City. Their adventures force them to cross paths with all sorts of low-lifes, including Elias Koteas as a Russian gangster, Eddie Kaye Thomas and David Krumholtz who return as Rosenberg and Goldstein, and the biggest asshole of the bunch, Neil Patrick Harris (as NPK), an actor pretending to be gay just to get close to the ladies. I always suspected. Also on hand is Tom Lennon as a straight-laced work friend of Kumar and the man largely responsible for getting that baby high... repeatedly.

Detailing the individual jokes or scenes seems pointless. The real fun with H&K Christmas is the discovery, both of the surprisingly strong script that picks apart the nature of the central friendship and why it fell apart. There are actually some rather heartfelt scenes between Cho and Penn that are both funny and touching. But the film is also a tribute to the great holiday movies of the past. There's a claymation sequence, one of the best homages to A Christmas Story you will ever see, and a musical number led by NPK that will mentally induct you into the Christmas spirit without fail.

The movie is a fantastic balance of old-fashioned, family-value mentality crashing head on into some of the most inappropriate comedy I've seen in years. Co-writers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (who have penned all three films as well as written and directed the upcoming American Reunion film) and first-time feature director Todd Strauss-Schulson successfully turn these boys into men with H&K Christmas. I should also mention that the 3D here is actually some of most cleverly utilized in recent memory, in particular the wafting smoke that seems to linger right in front of your face in a couple of scenes. Feel free to inhale.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with Harold & Kumar stars Kal Penn and John Cho.

Like Crazy

Here's what I want you to think going into writer-director Drake Doremus' sneaky little love story Like Crazy. I want you to think you're going into a movie that is about two 20-something students who fall in love and then are forced to stay separated because the real world decides to intrude on their private lovefest. It wouldn't be wrong to think that, but to be complete honest, that plot description covers the first half of Like Crazy. It's the back half that's the tricky, but no less compelling portion of this gentle, beautiful work that transforms from a graceful, emotional creature into something entirely less certain, bordering on dark and uncertain.

Jacob (Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in Star Trek, Charley in Fright Night and Kyle Reese in Terminator Salvation) is a student and would-be furniture maker who meets Anna (Felicity Jones from last year's The Tempest), a British student in the states on a student visa. In an initial nice change of pace, it's Anna who makes the first move, and it doesn't take long for the pair to hit it off and begin dating for the rest of the school year. But when the end of said year arrives, Anna is meant to head back to England and return to school within three months, only she gets greedy and a little dumb, and blows off returning, thus violating her visa. She does decide to go home for a couple of weeks to see her parents (Alex Kingston and Oliver Muirhead), but when she attempts to return to America, she's stopped by Homeland Security and sent back, perhaps for good.

What we immediately notice about these initial scenes is what we don't notice. Doremus provides a series of moments, with and without dialogue, to illustrate Jacob and Anna's falling in love. But we never see their first kiss or what led up to the first time they made love. Instead, we get smaller moments that seem to mean more because they represent the relationship more accurately. Anyone can have sex, but it takes a special couple to lie in bed just talking about deeply personal moments. To put things in a musical metaphor (the music in this film is incredible and extremely important to moving things forward), the first half of Like Crazy is not a "Jacob and Anna's Greatest Hits"; it's more the deep cuts that everybody knows are the better songs that get to the core of the artist.

But when these two are kept apart, the fabric of their relationship is revealed. They don't communicate as well or as often as they'd like on the phone. Both eventually move on with their lives — he with a co-worker in his furniture business, played by Yelchin's The Beaver co-star Jennifer Lawrence; she with a live-in boyfriend (Charlie Bewley) — but whenever Jacob saves up enough money to come to England, they both drop everything and everyone to be together. They talk, fight, accuse, get jealous and, yes, have sex. But they aren't truly a part of each others' lives, and things become strained.

I don't want to say too much more about the course Like Crazy takes, but I certainly was not expecting it to take many of the turns it does in the back half. Jacob's business takes off, and Anna's journalism career does the same. How do you keep something together that fate clearly does not want to happen? Doremus is certainly interested in the fabric of love, but he's just as curious about life's snags that seek to unravel it. Like Crazy is a well-acted, beautiful-looking movie that isn't afraid to dig deep and expose the perils of being separated and being brought together. These waters are more troubled than they may appear, and that's a perfect reason to see this movie, which opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Le Havre

On the surface, Le Havre is an allegorical tale about the sad events that often happen when immigration laws are enforced for the wrong reasons. Then again, Finnish writer-director Aki Kaurismäki rarely stays on the surface of any of his movies (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Man Without a Past, The Match Factory Girl). Easily the director's most accessible and least abrasive work, Le Havre shows us the intersecting lives of two very different people in the French harbor town where the movie takes its name.

The first is Marcel (Andre Wilms), an old hippie in the guise of a shoeshine man who lives to buck authority and would love it if his community was open to anyone, including a young African illegal immigrant Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who is in desperate need of assistance so he can hide until an available ship can take him from France to London to meet up with relatives. If he's caught, he'll get deported back to Africa; if he gets away with it, it could spell trouble for Marcel at the hands of sinister police inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), who skulks around town often just steps behind Marcel and Idrissa.

Part of the reason Marcel is so eager to help this boy is that his sweet, dutiful wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) has recently gone to the hospital with a grave illness that I don't believe is ever identified, and Marcel is desperate to be of help to someone, even if it can't be her. Le Havre employs a dry, dark humor to tell its story, and occasionally even uses a bit of old-time movie magic to solve its dilemmas. Despite the presence of the inspector (apparently, he's more misunderstood than actually evil), there aren't any real villains in the movie, beyond The System that would keep Idrissa from traveling through town without having to hide.

The strength of Le Havre is its humanity, and Kaurismäki's ability to make us care so deeply about these wonderful characters. Marcel is the kind of man we all would like to have as an advice-giving but still curmudgeonly grandfather, while Idrissa's spirit and will to live and succeed is inspiring. The film feels both modern and timeless, which is exactly how every movie should feel and so few do. Don't be scared by the subtitles, and be encouraged by the fact that this movie is Finland's official entry for Oscar consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Le Havre opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

The Double

This unexpectedly clever, fun and slightly insane spy thriller might literally be impossible to talk about in any detail, and that's because what in any other film might be the big secret that the filmmakers hold off revealing until the end is actually revealed early on. And that was absolutely the right move, because it adds a dimension and knowing to one of the characters that we're able to share but none of the other players are.

I'll give you the bare-bones structure. Long-retired CIA operative Paul Shepherdson (Richard Gere) is asked to come out of retirement to help solve the murder of a U.S. senator that appears to have been committed by a believed-long-dead Soviet assassin nicknamed (by the Americans) Cassius. No one knows what Cassius looks like, but he used to head a team of Soviet killers, most of whom Paul killed personally, which makes the re-emergence of Cassius all the more troublesome for him. Paul is forced to work with young FBI agent Ben Geary (Topher Grace), who wrote his college thesis on Cassius, and knows details about the mysterious killer that even Paul might not. Once the pair get used to each other, they actually make a formidable team.

But with Cassius not only back but on U.S. soil, this puts pressure on Paul and Ben to find him before he kills again and possibly even targets the two of them for simply being on his trail. The film was co-written by Derek Haas and Mchael Brandt (marking his directing debut as well), the writing team behind 3:10 To Yuma and Wanted, so it's no surprise that The Double moves at a nice clip while still keeping its twisted plot fairly intelligible. The film owes more than a passing debt to the fantastic 1987 film No Way Out starring Kevin Costner, and that's as much as I'm saying on that point. But I was genuinely impressed with Gere's work here as the sharp and intense Geary, who wants nothing more than to be done with this case once and for all.

The Double has a handful of solid supporting performances from the likes of Martin Sheen as Paul's former boss, "True Blood's" Stephen Moyer as another Russian killer, and Odette (Yustman) Annable as Ben's wife. But really the film comes down to Gere and Grace being extremely convincing in their roles as smart, deductive thinkers who have to solve an unsolvable riddle. It's a bit disappointing the film is getting such a limited release, but better this kind of distribution than none at all. If you're looking for a movie that reminds you why the Cold War was sometimes so great for Hollywood, The Double is the one to seek out this weekend. This film opens today exclusively in Chicago at the AMC River East 21.

Urbanized

If I told you that the urban-planning documentary Urbanized was from director Gary Hustwit, maker of such design-centric works as Helvetica (about type design) and Objectified (about industrial design), that either means something very exciting to you or it doesn't. Hopefully it does. Said to be Hustwit's last film on the topic of design, Urbanized is a fascinating examination of what makes a city's layout work for its citizen, and what might make their experience living there worse.

Looking at everything from public transportation to bike lane placement and a variety of other urban spaces and elements, Hustwit interviews the usual suspects from city leaders to planners and architects whose work could feasibly change the face of the modern urban environment. I was particularly impressed as the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia walks the film crew through his city showing off its innovative bus system and walking/biking paths that have made it much easier for commuters to enter and exit the city in a car-free manner.

With population centers growing at an alarming rate and new road construction/expansion project unable to keep up with the number of cars being purchased by said expanding population, these high-concept ideas could lead the way at determining how to solve some of the world's most burdensome issues. While understanding why a font or a chair design is so wildly popular is certainly entertaining (to some), Urbanized is about a real-world issue, its potential consequences and possible solutions. This is a documentary that will make you examine the very space around you and force you to consider what could be improved for the betterment and safety of your fellow city dwellers. And this great work looks good doing it. The film opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

 
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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

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