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Column Fri Feb 24 2012

Wanderlust, Act of Valor, Hell and Back Again, Chico & Rita, Crazy Horse & Thin Ice



It's Oscar weekend, so I'm guessing that a lot of you are going to be filling these next couple of days trying to catch one or two of the nominees you may have missed, and that's a noble effort. But if you let this weekend pass without seeing the awfully funny new film from director David Wain (Wet Hot American Summer, Role Models), you'd be making a horrible mistake. Wain once again teams up with his constant actor companion Paul Rudd and co-writer Ken Marino (who appears in the film as Rudd's piggish brother) to make Wanderlust, a movie that had me laughing throughout, sometimes convulsing into violent fits that resemble a seizure (yeah, I'm a lot of fun to sit next to in the theater).

Rudd and his "Friends" and The Object of My Affection co-star Jennifer Aniston star as George and Linda, a Manhattan couple that can barely afford the smallest possible micro-loft in the city. Shortly after they purchase said loft, George loses his job and the self-(un)employed Linda hasn't figured out what she's good at yet, so they are forced to leave the city and head to Atlanta, where George's brother and his self-medicating wife (Michaela Watkins) take them in and give George a demeaning data-entry job. On the way to Atlanta, they stop for one night at a bed & breakfast operated and fully stocked by hippies, leading an organic-farming, vegan, free-love existence (some are nudists), but for one night, George and Linda have a fulfilling experience on what turns out to be a commune.

Once they bail on Atlanta, they head back to the commune run by Carvin, played by an amusing Alan Alda, and spiritually guided by Seth (a drop-dead hilarious, everything-you-hate-about-hippies Justin Theroux), who clearly has his eyes set on Linda, just as George has his set on Eva (Malin Akerman). Also on hand on the commune are Kathryn Hahn (who played Rudd's organic-farmer girlfriend in Our Idiot Brother last year), Lauren Ambrose, Joe Lo Truglio (as the aforementioned nudist), and Kerri Kenney-Silver.

As rude and crude as Wanderlust can get at times, there is an underlying statement here about the appeal of throwing aside yuppie staples like career, monogamy and worldly possessions. At first, George is the one who sees the stress-free advantages of such a life, but when a potential job comes his way, he suddenly seems hesitant, while Linda picks up the interest. Of course, the element of this life that nearly splits them apart is free love. And after George is given the go-ahead to sleep with Eva, what follows are two of the film's funniest sequences, all thanks to Rudd. You'll know the scenes when you see them. The first involves Rudd in front of a mirror psyching himself up to have sex for the first time outside of his marriage. He lets loose with a string of vulgarities that will go in the comedy history books as one of the funniest scenes committed to film. The follow-up is a scene in which George starts to "seduce" Eva; it's a trainwreck that I barely heard because I was still laughing from the mirror scene.

Aniston doesn't get as many high-comedy moments as Rudd, Theroux or even Lo Truglio, but she's a great reactive force to all of the insanity around her, and very often it's her off-put feedback that made me laugh even harder at something funny. She's not trying to be adorable or edgy, as she often is in her cookie-cutter romantic comedies of late, but between her supporting role in Horrible Bosses and here in Wanderlust, I'd say she's on the right course toward reliable, solid comedy work.

The way the film wraps up is slightly hurried and obvious, but it doesn't damage the fantastic work that comes before it. Wanderlust is another feather in the cap of the Wain-Rudd partnership, which I hope continues until the end of time. I was especially impressed with Theroux work, which is still new to audiences and didn't exactly get much of a boost from his villain role in Your Highness. He's a comedic chameleon who has frequently sacrificed being recognizable to create the best character he can, and Seth is a master stroke of self-important do-gooder sleeze-bag. Wanderlust will have you gasping for breath from laughter; be sure to bring the oxygen tank.

To read my exclusive interview with Wanderlust director and co-writer David Wain, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Act of Valor

Before the actual movie Act of Valor starts rolling, there's a fairly lengthy taped message from co-directors Mike "Mouse" McCoy and Scott Waugh explaining that the men playing Navy SEALs in the movie are actual active-duty Navy SEALs, that they used live rounds in most of the action sequences (I'm not sure how that's even legal, let alone safe, but OK), and that they couldn't even tell us the real names of the performers in the credits for security reasons. I'm not sure if this pre-making-of message will play before the theatrical run of the film, but I'm assuming it will. I question why they filmmakers or the distributor thought it was necessary to include it, since all it does is make them look cooler (maybe I just figured it out), but it sets the wrong tone.

But I'm not knocking Act of Valor because of a stupid opening. There are actually some really interesting, even fascinating, operational elements to the film that lend an authenticity to the story that I've rarely experienced in a covert military operation-type action film. But the use of active-duty SEALs is squandered on a really dumb story with almost campy villains and distracting side plots. We already know these guys aren't actors, so don't saddle them with emotional goodbye scenes or light-hearted dialogue meant to add humanity to these trained killers. I'm OK thinking that America's sanctioned infiltrators are badass to the core; I don't need to laugh at their jokes.

Some may dismiss Act of Valor as straight propaganda or a military recruiting tool, and the elements are certainly in place for those criticisms. But I had a more difficult time seeing it as unbridled flag waving in commercial form. Some of the team members are killed or horribly maimed during their missions, and not in particularly glorious ways. But between the technically authentic moments is some real heavy-handed slop.

In one mission, the SEALs must rescue a kidnapped CIA operative (Roselyn Sanchez), who also happens to be hot even after being tortured. The rescue mission itself is somewhat exciting, but leading up to it, we are burdened with made-up stories about leaving families behind and backstory on the operative that adds nothing to the movie at all. And then there's the ring leader of a terrorist plot to blow up bombs in major U.S. cities; he's played by Alex Veadov, and he's a cliche from top to bottom, from his goatee to his girl-filled yacht. Finally, we get the big bad terrorist himself(Jason Cottle) who sets the plot in motion, but first he kills a school filled with children by loading an ice cream truck with explosives. Classy. All of these characters feel like they were assembled in Screenwriting 101 by the students who failed the class.

We know the Navy SEALs aren't actors, but give us something, guys. There's a moment that literally made me gasp when a terrorist shoots a rocket launcher right into the chest of a SEAL but it doesn't go off. I have no doubt in my mind that this actually happened to someone, somewhere, but his reaction is so ho-hum that I wanted to throttle the guy. I really doubt that's how the person this happened to reacted. More troubling is a letter written from one soldier to the unborn son of a fallen comrade that serves as the narration for the film. Amongst his words are messages about how burying your emotions makes you a better man that are somewhat troubling. I would never pretend to understand the mindset of a military man; I'm pretty sure I couldn't do what they do on any level. But I would genuinely like the meet the man or woman who sees Act of Valor and feels compelled to sign up for active duty. If you are that easily influenced, I have some swampland in Florida I'd like to sell you. Act of Valor succeeds as a curiosity as much as it fails as a real-life movie.

Hell and Back Again

A few more Oscar nominated films are opening up in select cities this weekend, including the documentary Hell and Back Again, from director and photojournalist Danfung Dennis, which tells us two tightly connected yet very different stories about a Marine who suffers severe injuries on his last days in Afghanistan and the men he leaves behind as he fights his own battle to come home. The soldier in question is 25-year-old Sgt. Nathan Harris, who in 2009 was dropped behind Taliban lines to engage in a massive firefight that left one of his legs destroyed. Although he does not lose his leg, he is in for a long recovery in his native North Carolina with the help of his patient wife.

Dennis takes an interesting approach to topics I've seen covered before in other films about the troops serving in the Middle East, but rarely have I seen them brought together in such an emotionally connective way. He was embedded with Echo Company for about a year in one of the fiercest stretches I've ever seen in a documentary. Hell and Back Again intercuts scenes of brutal fighting with moments of struggle in Sgt. Harris's life, moments that often make him a difficult man to enjoy being around. But it's clear that Dennis is more concerned with the audience understanding where his subject is coming from rather than us simply liking him.

Harris is frequently sluggish and irrational from numerous painkillers he's on; he almost always carries a loaded pistol with him, and this made me fearful of him, although his saintly wife barely seems to notice at times, even when he's pointing the gun right at her (supposedly in jest). But it's clear that Harris is desperate to return to active duty, and is crushed when his doctor tells him that isn't possible, making him seem more like a danger to himself and/or others than ever before. These intensely personal moments are often difficult to watch, and are likely being repeated in tens of thousands of towns all over the country as soldiers return home either by choice or by injury.

Dennis lays sounds of battlefield fighting over shots of Harris struggling with his mental and physical pain, and while this may be overdoing things a bit, the point is made in a crystal clear fashion. In both parts of the film, the level of closeness and intimacy is impressive and important, and as a result, I might have a new favorite film in the Documentary Oscar category. This is an astonishing piece of filmmaking, which opens today at Facets Multi-Media.

Chico & Rita

One of the real delights of this year's Oscar nominations was the inclusion of two non-English-language animated features getting nods and knocking out such contenders as the unworthy Cars 2. Both A Cat In Paris from France and the stunning Spanish-language Chico & Rita are fantastic works, but the latter (from Oscar-winning Belle Epoque director Fernando Trueba and famous Spanish designer, Javier Mariscal) is a knockout thanks to some borderline simple but elegant animation style and is sumptuous music taken from the heart of the Havana jazz club scene circa the late 1940s and '50s.

The story is one of star-crossed lovers — one a pianist named Chico, the other a beautiful singer named Rita. They fall in love almost from the minute they lay eyes on each other and spend the rest of the movie trying to deny it (unsuccessfully) over nearly 50 years from Cuba to New York, Vegas and Hollywood. The pair perform together, making the most gorgeous music (courtesy of composer and pianist Bebo Valdes), then they go to bed together, wake up, and find something to fight about, and the cycle starts up again. Although the film is not rated, it does feature cartoon nudity and language, so this one isn't exactly for the kids. But for adults there is so much to love here. The colors, the movement, and of course the music, all braid together into this warm embrace of a film that is front loaded with celebration, heartbreak, and a little revolution to spice things up. I also love the "cameos" (either they are drawn in or their music is feature or both) by legendary jazz artists Thelonious Monk, Cole Porter, Dizzy Gillespie and Freddy Cole. My eyes and ears were equally entranced by this lush little work. I still think Rango is going to win the award, but at least you get a chance to see Chico & Rita on the big screen. It opens today for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Crazy Horse

Opportunities to see a film by Frederick Wiseman in an actual movie theater are pretty rare (many of them premiere on PBS), but now the master documentarian returns to Paris after 2009's Paris Opera Ballet profile La Danse to give us Crazy Horse, a slightly different dance movie. The establishment in question is one of the city's longest-running nude revues/cabaret clubs, founded in 1951 and is a noted adult stop on any trip to the City of Lights.

Wiseman's style of filmmaking (no narration, no titles, no interviews, just plop the camera in a room and let the action happen) continues to give one of the most complete overviews of any place or situation, often because there is no sense that the subjects even notice (or care) that he's there capturing some truly intimate moments sometimes. Strangely enough with Crazy Horse, it isn't the sequences featuring nudity that feel the most intimate. The filmmaker once again shows us every conceivable corner of the establishment, spending a great deal of time following choreographer Philippe Decoufle, the lighting designer, the costume makers, make-up artist, those that work in the administrative offices and, of course, the dancers, all of whom are preparing for a new show called "D├ęsir."

Despite what you might think, the Crazy Horse is a pretty fancy place and the routines are breathtaking both for their chic elements and the beauty of the dancers, who perform two shows a day and three on Saturday, with rehearsals for new shows in between. At the very least, you will have a newfound respect for how grueling a routine these woman put themselves through. This might be Wiseman's first ever sexy movie, which seems bizarre to say. But with so many of his films being about socially relevant topics, it's enjoyable to watch him enjoy the art form he's shooting and capture various routines in their entirely.

I would never be so bold as to say that the nudity ever stops being titillating, but you get used to it after a while and soon you're getting pulled into the often-difficult, day-to-day process of running a space like this. Crazy Horse still manages to be high art from Wiseman (nudity doesn't eliminate the possibility), and I think both his true fans and casual moviegoers will find things to enjoy about the work. Just beware of old men in trench coats in the first row. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Thin Ice

Without ruining some of the twists and turns the plot of Thin Ice takes, very little of what was presented in this film surprised me in the slightest, and I don't really blame filmmaker Jill Sprecher (Thirteen Conversations about One Thing). It's the curse of seeing so many movies in a given year, or in my lifetime for that matter. Taking that into account, the movie still feels disposable despite some intriguing performance, especially from Greg Kinnear as Mickey Prohaska, a slightly sleazy Wisconsin insurance salesman who will bend the truth every chance he gets to get what he needs from the world for his failing business and failing-worse marriage (to Lea Thompson).

Breaking it down to its essentials, Thin Ice concerns Mickey stumbling upon a elderly farmer named Gorvy (played by Kinnear's Little Miss Sunshine co-star Alan Arkin) who asks to buy a policy from his firm, and during the inventory of Gorvy's largely worthless property, a beat-up violin is discovered and appraised at in the low tens of thousands by violin repair expert Leonard (Bob Balaban). Mickey tries his darnedest to keep the true value of the instrument from Gorvy and eventually arranges to have him leave town briefly so he can steal it. But it turns out that the day Gorvy is leaving, he has an alarm system installed by a slightly insane locksmith named Randy (Billy Crudup). During the attempted theft, all hell breaks loose and Thin Ice turns into Fargo-lite with a little help from a dead body, insurance fraud, one lie covering up another lie, and an army of untrustworthy folks skimming across the surface of Mickey's spiraling life.

I've always been a fan of Kinnear, especially when he plays less-than-likable guys. He's got just enough classic Hollywood good looks to make it all the more wonderfully despicable when we know he's lying through his teeth. Even noble reasons like wanting to repair a fractured marriage with his wife are quite good enough to justify what he does. And just when you think you know how things are going to end, in all likelihood, you don't. Arkin is almost too much of a caricature for me to buy that Gorvy was as unknowing as he seemed to be, while Crudup brings back the crazy in all sorts of fun ways. Thin Ice is far from a terrible movie, but it's one of those productions that you might remember liking a week after you've seen it, but you won't be able to remember why exactly. Sometimes minor discoveries like this are what I live for, but this one didn't quite cut it. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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TheNoGoodnick / February 24, 2012 4:50 PM

Danfung Dennis's Hell and Back Again is a documentary masterpiece. The seamless transition between the war and the civilian life of Nathan Harris is made all the more haunting with the occasional splicing of the sounds of war into the scenes of civilian life.

Meesh / April 15, 2012 1:24 PM

Re: Act Of Valor Review. Your review is not accurate. Did you REALLY watch it? All of it? There are many innacurate summaries of scenes that you include in your review. If you are going to do a job, do it well. Don't half-a$$ it by not conducting thorough research or tell lies because you do not know how to get your point across.

One word summarizes this movie; AUTHENTIC. I was thankful for the lack of predictable Hollywood BS this movie lacked. There has not been a single Hollywood movie released that I haven't figured out within the first two-five minutes of. At that point, I try to find something of entertainment value because the plots are weak and obvious. Act Of Valor does not appeal to the "I'd rather hide in my bubble & pretend reality is a Hollywood script" mentality. The emotions displayed by The SEALS in this movie ARE REAL because they have actually lived it. They nailed their parts unlike any trained actor could. I got it. I feel bad for anyone who does not understand or find value in this amazing film. You lose out on an eye-opening piece of life that is typically reserved for only those who have lived through it; but maybe THAT is your fortune as well. Enjoy the serenity, peace and comfort you live while reality moves around you. If ever you find yourself in "battle", you will remember this movie and, Get It. Peace to you.

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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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