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Column Fri Apr 27 2012

The Five-Year Engagement, The Raven, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, The Hunter, Monsieur Lazhar & Darling Companion

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpgBefore we dive into this week's releases, I wanted to let you know that since I've been oppressively busy lately, I missed last week's column despite there being a couple of solid releases worth your time and money. Top of that list is the extraordinary documentary Marley, the expansive, definitive chronicle of Bob Marley's life, music, and cultural impact, which continues its run at the Music Box Theatre for the next week. And while the film is sanctioned by the Marley estate, it is far from a glossy portrait of his life as director Kevin Macdonald does a fantastic job of assembling a balanced look at Marley as both a creative genius and a man who wanted to please everyone and achieve worldwide popularity. And yes, we do get a great deal of discussion about his having a whole lot of kids by a whole lot of women, many of whom appear in the film. Certainly fans of Marley's music will not want to miss this piece, but I also think casual admirers will get a great deal out of it.

Also on the documentary front, the latest from Disney Nature was released last week, Chimpanzee, which presents a beautifully photographed slice of life look at a tribe of chimps doing everything from gathering food, using tools to crack nuts (which still blows me away for some reason), and fighting off attackers who want to take over their prized nut grove. As in many of the Disney Nature films, there's a surprising amount of inherent drama that is captured in this movie, including a significant amount of peril and even death (presented off camera, but still pretty harrowing). Perhaps my biggest complaint with Chimpanzee is the a-little-to-cutesy narration by Tim Allen (I guess Carrot Top wasn't available), but overall the film is a gorgeous document in a series of nature films that I've thoroughly enjoyed every year.

Finally, one of the biggest surprises in last week's rundown was the ensemble comedy Think Like A Man, not so much based on the relationship advice book by comic Steve Harvey, but more a story of how the book's "secrets" about men changed the dating world. While the film is overly long and the various plots progress and wrap up a bit too neatly, the film is also fairly insightful and extremely funny, due in great part to comedian Kevin Hart as a man in the middle of a divorce who has no interest in a relationship, watching his friends panic then rework their dating routines based on the book. At its core, the film is a call for honestly in relationships, and it certainly has a leg up on most typical romantic comedies (which this is not). The impressive (mostly African-American) cast includes Michael Ealy, Taraji P. Henson, Regina Hall, Meagan Good, Romany Malco and Gabrielle Union, all treating the subject and material seriously (for the most part). The result is a thought-provoking, quality comedy that has a lot to say to and about both sexes.

OK, now onto this week's offerings...

The Five-Year Engagement

Thankfully, the Judd Apatow formula of injecting a great deal of heart into a raunchy environment, albeit predictable, has not become tiresome, especially in the hands of Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller, who collaborated on Forgetting Sarah Marshall (Segel wrote, Stoller directed), The Muppets (the two co-wrote), and now The Five-Year Engagement (they co-wrote, Stoller directed); Stoller also wrote and directed Get Him To the Greek, to which Segel contributed songs. And with the exception of The Muppets, all of these films were guided by producer Apatow, who has the ability to make us care about the fates (romantic and otherwise) of ridiculous men.

But Segel's Tom Soloman isn't quite as ridiculous as some of the other characters he's played over the years. In fact, he opens The Five-Year Engagement attempting to propose to his girlfriend, Violet (Emily Blunt), in a romantic and mature way that many of the other characters he's played would never have dreamed of. The premise of the movie is simple: due to Violet's career path as a college-professor-in-training, the couple is forced to postpone their San Francisco wedding, initially for two years to move to Michigan, but later the delay gets extended, and this puts a strain on their relationship. Tom was a rising star as a chef in the Bay Area, so the move forced him to sacrifice a promising career (he's forced to work in a sandwich shop in Michigan), but he knows the sacrifice will be worth it for the sake of their eventual marriage.

During the delay, her sister (Alison Brie, complete with adorable British accent) and his best friend (Chris Pratt) get knocked up and married, grandparents die, and parents put pressure on the couple to make the marriage happen. And so both start to doubt themselves and each other in terms of their level of commitment, making things unstable. The Five-Year Engagement takes some unexpectedly dark and sad turns in its second half, but Segel and Stoller never forget to keep the laughs coming, sometimes relying on the strong supporting cast (which also includes Mindy Kaling, Dakota Johnson, Jacki Weaver, Kevin Hart, Chris Parnell, Randall Park and Brian Posehn) to pick up the slack during more serious moments involving the leads.

While I wouldn't classify the film as sophisticated, there is most definitely a level of maturity and believability here that is wonderfully refreshing. The object here isn't always to go for the joke, especially if it gets in the way of allowing a few raw emotions into the mix. That's not to say that the film isn't front-loaded with silly behavior. One of my favorite scenes involves Blunt and Brie exchanging a painful relationship discussion in the voices of Elmo and Cookie Monster to disguise the seriousness of the conversation from a child in the room.

And Segel once again, fresh on the heels of the recently released Jeff, Who Lives at Home (I will continue plugging this exceptional film until it comes out on DVD) continues to show his diversity as an actor. He will always be a naturally funny guy; I know this. But in The Five-Year Engagement, his feelings, both being in love and having his heart broken, are as naked and honest as he sometimes gets in his movies. He's a guy you can't help but root for, even when he's in the wrong, because you know he means well.

Are there many surprises in this movie? A few, but nothing earth-shattering. Does the film wrap up the way you'd expect? Pretty much. At its core, The Five-Year Engagement is a prime example of how to do a romantic comedy right, and I believe it's a work that men will get slightly more out of than women. This isn't the loner version of Segel that we saw in I Love You Man; this is a guy who wants to be in love and in a relationship, and I believe most men will see some of themselves in his passion for his lady. And I've somehow gone this far without mentioning how exceptional and fearless Blunt is in this movie. She has no trouble jumping head first into the raunchy behavior and using her surface poise to disguise the mild lunatic underneath.

To say that The Five-Year Engagement is a great date movie would be limiting its appeal. It's tough for me to envision anyone not finding some or every aspect of this movie charming and impressive. Between this film, Wanderlust and 21 Jump Street, this year is shaping up to be strong for non-sequel R-rated comedies (sorry, American Reunion). Even if you're typically adverse to rom-coms, you'll be in safe waters seeing this one. Trust me.

The Raven

In concept, I've got nothing against the idea of a film that turns the great and gloomy author/poet Edgar Allan Poe into a crime-fighting tool working with the Baltimore police to solve a series of murders that seem to be inspired by his own grizzly writings. I especially like the idea in the hands of director James McTeigue, whose V for Vendetta adaptation was a great period piece that mixed fact and fiction, and resulted in a rousing call to arms against inequality. So why in God's name was I so astonishingly bored by The Raven?

Perhaps it was John Cusack's underwhelming portrayal of Poe, a drunken lout pining for a woman far above his class (Alice Eve). Or perhaps it was the cardboard cutout portrait of the police detective (Luke Evans) leading the investigations into the murder. And while I'm perfectly aware that The Raven isn't meant to be a straight-forward biopic, finally getting the writer on the screen should have inspired the filmmakers to give us a little taste of his real life rather than just this manufactured stuff. Perhaps the worse miscalculation is that we really want a "Poe in Love" story; not that I don't find Alice Eve fetching and all, but I'd like to see a little bit inside the soul of the man who could come up with such grotesque and gothic material. I get that Poe was prone to getting lovesick (as well as just sick sick), but that doesn't make for particularly compelling storytelling.

The mystery surrounding the identity of the killer is especially uninspired, and since there are so few characters in The Raven, the identity of the serial killer isn't that tough to figure out. His motives are the only mystery, and even they are rather lackluster. The great Brendan Gleeson is grossly underutilized as Eve's protective father who refuses to let Poe near his princess. But what truly rubbed me the wrong way was what I think will be looked back on as one of the greatest mis-castings in recent film history. Cusack looks like he'd rather be anywhere but in this movie, and after a while I just got sick of looking at his face. I think he's a great actor; please don't think otherwise. But this movie and he simply don't fit.

I guess the look of the film is something I could recommend, although so much of it is shown as murky and fog-covered, it became difficult to admire the lovely sets and locations. What feels missing from The Raven is inspiration. Poe isn't especially heartbroken since Eve's character seems very much in love with him, so that source of gloom and doom is missing. As the film opens, Poe appears to be slowly dying, so that little source of intrigue is killed. In short, I spent most of this film searching for a source of real drama and coming up short. This isn't a film trying hard enough for me to truly hate, but the substantial lack of enthusiasm for the material got me really annoyed.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Aardman Animations has an almost uncanny sense of what makes something funny that I could watch an animated short of a phonebook made by then, and I would find something amusing about it. So imagine what the studio could do with a pirate story. Using their patented brand of stop-motion animation, the folks at Aardman (led by director and Aardman co-founder Peter Lord, who last helmed the phenomenal Chicken Run) have assembled the spirited The Pirates! Band of Misfits about a bearded scamp known simply as Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant, who came out of acting retirement for this role), an optimistic and mostly decent fellow whose skill set may be lacking when it comes to being a truly nasty pirate.

He and his crew of also kind-of-nice blokes sail the seas looking for treasure, more often than not coming up empty-handed. The Pirate Captain's life's ambition is to win the Pirate of the Year Award, an honor that has eluded him due to the far superior pirating skills of Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), both of whom mock PC openly at the awards ceremony every year.

The Pirates! never settles down, and that's a huge part of the fun of the whole film. It takes us from bringing Charles Darwin (voiced by David Tennant) on board along with his pet chimp to the doorstep of Queen Victoria herself (Imelda Staunton), both of whom seem particularly interested in PC's parrot. Other exceptional voice talents include Brendan Gleeson, Brian Blessed and Martin Freeman as PC's #2 in charge.

There are so many reasons to love The Pirates! but the primary one is that it just feels and looks like an Aardman movie. The sets are expansive and detailed; I guarantee you could see this film a second time and only pay attention to what's going on in the background in terms of production design, and it would feel like an entirely new movie. The jokes and gags are fired at a rapid pace, and most of them are right on target. And lest you think that the film is simply a kids movie, there are jokes tucked away in here that only adults are going to understand, and the humor on both levels works beautifully. There isn't much more to say about The Pirates! except prepare to be overwhelmed with pure entertainment as only Aardman can provide.

Go to Ain't It Cool News to read my exclusive interview with The Pirates! Band of Misfits director and Aardman Animations co-founder Peter Lord.

The Hunter

One of the more impressive performances I've seen from Willem Dafoe in recent years (which have seen a whole list of worthy work from the man) is in this obscure Australian production about a professional tracker and hunter hired to go into the wilds of Tasmania to search for a long-believed-extinct tiger that has been spotted after decades of never being seen. Dafoe plays Martin, a brooding loner of a man who is hired by a corporation that wants the tiger's DNA. Posing as a researcher (so as not to upset the local wildlife protestors who are already riled up due to the immense logging going on in the area), Martin sets up camp with a family — a mother (Frances O'connor) and two kids; the father was the last person to go looking for the tiger, never to return.

In between long stretches of film simply showing Martin tracking and waiting for the tiger to appear, he spends time with the family and gets to know/feel protective of them, and rightfully so since there are hints that their lives are in danger as well. The Hunter reveals the dangers of attachment for a man like Martin, who becomes increasingly unsettled and paranoid as the film goes on, thinking that the corporation he's working for is up to something sinister. The movie is about not just what's going on around Martin, but more importantly what's going on inside his head, which in many ways is far more interesting.

I've heard some people say that The Hunter is a little slow. Maybe so, idiots, but it's about a hunter. He doesn't go charging into the woods guns a-blazin'. He's quiet, careful, patient... you know, like a hunter. The pacing is quite deliberate and extremely effective, and director Daniel Nettheim should be commended for showing such restraint. But the real appeal for me was Dafoe and his restrained, measured performance. There's a moment with him and the family set to the music of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" that is so perfect and elegant that I don't think I'll ever forget it. And it works because Dafoe keeps it under control but still allows us to see that these fragile people are getting under his skin. It's an exemplary moment.

I believe The Hunter has been On Demand for a while now, but its haunting scenery and dramatic, elemental landscapes are worth seeing on the big screen if you can. For this reason and so many others, The Hunter is worth seeking out however you can. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Monsieur Lazhar

Nominated at this year's Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film from Canada, Monsieur Lazhar begins with the shocking death of a young elementary school teacher who hangs herself in her classroom in the early morning hours, knowing full well which of her young students will arrive first to find her. Hearing about the suicide, an older Algerian immigrant Bachir Lazhar (Mohamed Fellag) arrives in the school's offices offering to step in as a substitute until a permanent replacement is found. In a panic to give the students a new guardian, the principal hires Lazhar knowing almost nothing about him. What happens next is a combination of therapy for the children and a kind of healing for Lazhar has well, who has gone through a personal tragedy of his own recently.

While Lazhar is told not to talk about the death specifically, he finds that when he does, the class responds and that most of the students feel better after the discussion. It's fascinating to watch the dance that the teacher and students do around the subject before diving in. Lazhar finds a potential love interest and his life finally begins to fall back in place just as the children's do. Writer-director Philippe Falareau demonstrates a light touch with his material and characters. There's a subtle condemnation of people who treat children with kid gloves when it comes to tough subjects like death. But there's also a slight rivalry going on between Lazhar and the student who found the body, who denies that he played any kind of role in the teacher's actions.

Monsieur Lazhar is a graceful, beautifully acted, powerful movie based a play by Evelyne de la Cheneliere, and it rightfully deserves its Oscar nomination and your time. Well worth seeking out, the film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Darling Companion

This grating piece of glass in your ass crack is a movie about people who think they are dog lovers, when in fact they couldn't possibly love anything more than their stupid selves. Shockingly from eye and pen (co-written with his daughter) of Lawrence Kasdan (director of The Big Chill, Grand Canyon, Body Heat and Silverado and writer of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Bodyguard) comes Darling Companion, an infuriating pest of a movie involving a missing dog and one of the single most annoying families you will ever meet. Kevin Kline plays a self-absorbed back surgeon married to Beth, played exactly how you'd expect her to be played by Diane Keaton, the stereotypical neglected wife who adopts a dog she finds with her daughter (Elisabeth Moss) abandoned on the side of the road.

A year later, after Moss marries the vet who helped fix up the dog (named Freeway because... oh fuck, you figure it out), Kline's Joseph loses him, setting off a chain reaction of foolishness that has all the remaining wedding guests searching for Freeway. The top-notch cast of actors wasting their considerable talents in this movie/search include Richard Jenkins, Dianne Wiest, Mark Duplass, Sam Shepard and a mysterious and beautiful gypsy woman who has a psychic connection to animals (this is not played for laughs, keep in mind), played by Ayelet Zurer.

According to the official plot summary of Darling Companion, the film is "comic, harrowing, sometimes deeply emotional." Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. This movie is vulture talons clawing at your soul. With the exception of Keaton, I don't think I've hated any of these actors more than I've hated them in this movie. And I know Kasdan made a magnificent misstep with Dreamcatcher a while back, but this is not the answer, sir. Make it your mission to not only stay away from this movie, but don't even walk on the same side of the street as a theater playing it. This movie made me remember what a terrible world we live in sometimes. If you do end up deciding to see it or you lose a bet or something, I pity you. This horrendous work opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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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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