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Column Fri Jun 15 2012

Rock of Ages, That's My Boy, My Sister's Sister & Safety Not Guaranteed

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Rock of Ages

The only thing more frustrating that sitting through an overlong, cliche-driven jukebox musical is watching one that has one truly strong performance surrounded by mediocrity. Tom Cruise has forsaken all of us at one point or another over the years, but when he pulls out something inspired, I am compelled to give him credit, and I do so happily.

Rock of Ages is a collection of familiar '80s hard rock songs and power ballads with a plot that is a small part Footloose and a whole lot of familiar, tired music industry stereotypes that have so little to do with actually loving this music (assuming those who go to see this movie based on a stage musical do). People give speeches about loving music and the transformative power of rock 'n' roll. They wear variations on the rock star uniform and pushing forth a very paint-by-number approach to both the acting and the music performances.

But when Tom Cruise enters the film as Stacee Jaxx, a rock band front man about to break out as a solo act, a light comes on that is undeniably bright. Sporting a look that is right out of the closet of earl Axl Rose, Jaxx is a comedy creation. We are meant to find him ridiculous when he's off stage. He and his pet monkey Hey Man are a force of sexual magnetism, even if you have to stifle a bit of laughter to see it. But when Cruise launches into song (the most memorable being Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive"), it's tough not to be impressed, with both his singing voice and his inherent rock star persona. And for those scattered chunks of time in Rock of Ages, you forget that eventually Cruise will stop singing, and we'll be forced to endure the rest of this meandering, silly endeavor.

Rock of Ages isn't really about Stacee Jaxx. It's about star-crossed young singers who find each other in a Sunset Strip rock bar where Drew (Diego Boneta) works. When small town girl Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough of the Footloose remake) gets off the bus and lands up in the club, it isn't long before she too gets a job there, and the romance begins. Now you have to understand, just to get to this point in the plot we have endured about five or six songs from the likes of Foreigner, Night Ranger, Def Leppard, Poison, Pat Benatar, REO Speedwagon, Night Ranger, Twisted Sister, Journey, and Quarterflash (wait, what?). And very few of the actors embarrass themselves as singers (with the exception of Alec Baldwin as the club's owner; he's tone deaf). But actors like Russell Brand, Malin Akerman, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who already exercised her ample singing chops in Chicago) join the ranks of Mary J. Blige (one of the actual singers in the film) to belt out this lively set of song choices, which basically boil down to either love song or anti-establishment anthem.

But the issues with this film are with its empty-headed story, in which characters emotions and common sense ebb and flow with the consistency of, well, without an consistency at all. And the song-song-song approach to this movie really cuts down on any time that might be devoted to me a shit about any of these characters. Through a stupid set of circumstances, Drew get a chance to play with his band in front of a crowd full of Jaxx fans, and Jaxx's manager (Paul Giamatti) offers him a management contract with the promise of stardom. This causes a riff between Drew and Sherrie that leads her to leave the club and begin life as a stripper in a club run by Blige, who convinces Sherrie (and no one in the audience) that being on the pole is a life of dignity and true womanhood. Okay...

Directed by Adam Shankman (who did the far superior film version of Hairspray), Rock of Ages feels crowded and sloppy, as if it has an open hostility toward its audience. I blame karaoke and "Glee" (episodes of which Shankman has directed) for this movie even existing. No, this is more the Shankman that gave us Cheaper By the Dozen 2 and The Pacifier. The jokes fall flat, the observations about the rock lifestyle seem about as believable as the idea of Malin Ackerman as an uptight, shy Rolling Stone writer doing a story on Jaxx. You know how you can tell she's a writer? She wears glasses. And naturally Jaxx turns her into his love monkey (perhaps named Hey Now).

When all is said and done, Rock of Ages just wants you to sing along, and that can be a whole lot of fun. But when you start burdening your movie with asinine subplot about a parental/religious group (led by Jones, playing the wife of politician Bryan Cranston) cracking down on disgusting musicians like Jaxx, you just have to endure the stupidity and wait for another familiar tune to come around. I'm certainly not knocking the music; you might even find a Def Leppard album or six in my collection. But when you're telling a rock 'n roll romance with characters featuring not an ounce rebellious spirit, you know you're in for a long tedious time at the movies. You devoted Cruise fans will be satisfied; the rest of you will be hitting some sour notes.

That's My Boy

When Adam Sandler steps out of his wheelhouse of PG-13 silly comedies (some of which are quite funny), great things can happen. He may have made more R-rated movies than Punch Drunk Love, Funny People, and his latest, That's My Boy, but those three films are among his finest efforts, even when they aren't designed for nonstop laughs. The good news for his old-school fans is that That's My Boy more or less is designed for the Happy Gilmore and Billy Madison set. Sandler's got a goofy version of a Boston accent, and the movie is wall-to-wall jokes, most of which reach a level of giggle-worthy filth that Sandler has never attempted or achieved.

In the film, Sandler plays Donny, who was seduced in his early teens by his teacher and fathered a baby named Todd (played as an adult by Andy Samberg). In the early scenes of Donny as a boy, the joke is that no one really thinks a crime has been committed since the teacher (Eva Amurri Martino) is so hot, and the kids becomes a big celebrity at an early age. But this life-long screw-up does such a terrible job raising his child that when Todd turns 18, he leaves his home never wanting to see his dad again.

As Donny gets older, his celebrity fades and he ends up in serious trouble with the IRS, which is threatening to toss him in jail if he doesn't pay back taxes. A tabloid TV show promises to cover his debt if he can arrange a meeting between himself, Todd and Todd's mother in jail (she got 30 years for sexing up a consenting minor), so Donny goes to reunite with Todd on the weekend that just happen to be when he's getting married to Jamie (Leighton Meester).

The crass, beer-guzzling Donny doesn't exactly fit in with the upscale crowd that is in town for the wedding, some of whom are staying with Todd's boss (played quite humorously by Tony Orlando...let that one sink in a bit), but he manages to charm his way into coming to the wedding. Todd has told everyone that his parents were dead, so Donny must pretend he's Todd's best friend, and eventually best man.

Aside from just populating That's My Boy with funny supporting players (Will Forte, Rachel Dratch), unfunny supporting players (Nick Swardson), and bizarre supporting players, such as James Caan as a priest and Vanilla Ice as one of Donny's best friends from his youth in a role that should not work, but it somehow does, primarily because Vanilla Ice has no dignity when it comes to comedy. What transpires in the movie are a series of largely tasteless acts featuring underwritten characters doing depraved things, yet somehow it all mostly works.

I'll admit it, I laughed my ass off during this two-hour act of vulgarity, came close to puking a few times, and was thoroughly entertained by this chaotic mess of a comedy. It feels a bit like Sandler, writer David Caspe (creator of the funny TV show "Happy Endings"), and director Sean Anders (director of Sex Drive and co-writer of Hot Tub Time Machine, working with Sandler for the first time) have taken a kitchen-sink approach to the humor, but most of it lands.

Sandler has a lot to make up for. His last two films, Just Go With It and the abysmal Jack & Jill, still suck, and what he's got lined up (a Grown-Ups sequel and a valet comedy with Kevin James and Kevin Hart) don't look nearly as promising, but here's hoping he goes back to his depraved roots. And bring back Vanilla Ice; that old dog may still have a little life in him yet. If you can handle the grotesque, That's My Boy could be right up your alley.

My Sister's Sister

As much as writer-director Lynn Shelton's previous feature Humpday was big on laughs, it also featured an intuitive message about the changing nature of friendship as we get older and expand into full-fledged adults with spouses and children. The two men in that film went to ridiculous lengths to preserve something of the edge they had in college, and the results are tremendously funny. But with Shelton's latest, My Sister's Sister, the themes are less obvious, more mature, and less about the jokes, although the film maintains her heightened sense of humor thanks in large part to a winning cast.

Mark Duplass plays Jack, who, as the film opens, is at a gathering to honor the one-year anniversary of his brother's death. He has something of a meltdown at the event, and his best friend Iris (Emily Blunt), who once dated his brother, offers up her father's vacation home off the coast of Seattle, where she hopes he will sit in solitude and contemplate his life without phone, the internet, or other people. However, when he arrives at the house, Iris' half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is actually doing pretty much the same thing, after a painful breakup. Rather than scrap their respective plans, Jack and Hannah decide the place is big enough for two, and they'll both stay there. But on the first night, they get loaded and end up sleeping together (in one of the most awkward and embarrassing sex scenes ever committed to film; Shelton hasn't pulled back on the comedy that much).

The next morning, Iris arrives at the cabin to keep Jack company and is extremely excited to see Hannah there too, since the two grew up being good friends, despite having different mothers. Although there's nothing going on between Jack and Iris, he still thinks keeping his tryst with Hannah a secret is a good idea. After finding our Iris has a crush on Jack, Hannah agrees. But you know how these things slip out. There are actually a few key plot elements that I'm not going to ruin for you -- some revealed early on and others that are saved until the third act. But Shelton's story is both beautifully simple and surprisingly complex. Jack makes it very clear that he does not want anything (especially him) coming between the sisters' sacred bond, and it becomes clear that he had a unresolved issues with his brother that he feels an immense amount of guilt over never having cleared up before his death.

With dialogue that is largely improvised in an effort to reach the emotional truth of every scene and character, Your Sister's Sister is a singular experience filled with insightful observations and humor, and a cast that simply brings home every emotion concerning family, mourning a loss, and beginning a new chapter in one's life. The cast is so charming and believable, it's difficult to wrap my brain around the idea of anyone not being impressed with some aspect of this movie. And while I certainly don't want to make it seem like this work is without laughs (there are plenty), this does show Shelton's growth and maturity as a filmmaker who seems at home with both broader comedy and heartfelt observations. And it would make an excellent double-feature with the next film. Your Sister's Sister opens in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Safety Not Guaranteed

If you're still riding high on the Mark Duplass train this week (he also has a small role in People Like Us, coming out at the end of the month), he has two films in release. Your Sister's Sister, which opened not long ago in a couple cities and wider today, and Safety Not Guaranteed, a much different film. For starters, Duplass's character in Safety might be certifiable, and it's up one magazine writer and his two interns to figure out if he is.

When a bizarre classified ad in which the writer is looking for a co-pilot to go time traveling with him ("Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed.") shows up in his magazine, staff writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and Arnau (newcomer Karan Soni) head out on a road trip to find the author and determine what his state of mind is with this request. Like many great stories, Safety Not Guaranteed is not about whether Kenneth (Duplass) can actually travel through time; it's about the journey and the self discovery each of the writers goes through in their own fractured world. Jeff has regrets about the past; Darius is concerned about her life not moving forward; and Arnau fears for his future. Time is not friend to any of these people.

And then there's the seemingly harmless Kenneth, whom Darius approaches pretending to respond to his ad, after which he begins training and prepping her for their trip. The film features one small surprise after another. The tentative relationship that begins to form between Darius and Kenneth is remarkable. Plaza herself is playing someone so less abrasive than her "Parks & Recreation" character that you almost don't recognize her with all the smiling. Soni is a true discovery. His dry comic timing is masterfull, and his scenes with Johnson (from "New Girl") make for some exquisite buddy cop moments. These two could have their own movie, and I'd watch it on a loop for weeks.

The most fascinating aspect of Safety Not Guaranteed is watching the slow transition of Kenneth from paranoid freak to someone who learns to care again. His reasons for wanting to travel back in time are tied to quite sad and desperate reasons, and his connection to Darius is cathartic for him, and Duplass plays it note perfect. Not too creepy or silly, Duplass is marvelous at adjusting on the fly based on what the other actors are giving him. And wait until you hear him sing (no joke). Duplass has secured himself an interesting position as almost an anti-leading man, and that's not a comment about his looks. He just seems to insist on playing emotionally well-rounded characters with brains to match. It's actually quite refreshing in the current landscape. I'm not sure he'd win in a fight, but he'd certain have a more charming sense of humor than his opponent.

Some sequences in Safety Not Guaranteed are played strictly for laughs, while other may elicit a few tears (remember that singing I mentioned?), and writer Derek Connolly and director Colin Trevorrow strike a beautiful balance in this very entertaining work. Seek this one out and prepare to leave the theater with a big smile on your face.

To read my exclusive interviews with Safety Not Guaranteed writer Derek Connolly, director Colin Trevorrow, co-stars Jake Johnson and Karan Soni, and stars Aubrey Plaza and Mark Duplass, go to Ain't It Cool News.

 
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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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